Children, especially young athletes, require a balance of carbohydrates and protein in their diet so they’ll have plenty of energy to run play and compete in their favorite sports.
When you must travel to enjoy those sports, making sure athletes get the nutrition they need to perform their best can be challenging.
With prior planning and a good understanding of proper nutrition, young athletes can flourish, said Juliet Higa, a clinical dietitian and diabetes educator with UCHealth Diabetes and Medical Nutrition Therapy in northern Colorado, who is also a mother of a young athlete.
UCHealth Today asked Higa to explain her reasoning behind snack and meal choices and to provide tips for snacks and drinks you should take on the road.
Carbs and protein for young athletes
First, one must understand what the body needs and how it processes it.
Carbs are fuel. If you think of the body as a vehicle and looking at the different types of fuel, carbs are the high octane. They provide quick bursts of energy needed for sprinting down the field, whereas long-distance runners burn more fat.
Soccer players who are sprinting back and forth on the field are using a great deal of energy when they play, so if they don’t consume enough carbs before a game, their tanks will be empty pretty quickly.
Protein is the building block of every cell in the body but protein especially helps build and maintain muscles. It also helps to slow digestion, so paired with the right carbs it can help the body slowly digest carbs for sustainable energy.
The caveat: you don’t want those carbs sitting in the gut when it’s time to play. Allow enough time — ideally a few hours — before an event for that digestion.
If you do need a quick snack before an event, try half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — which has good carbs from the bread and protein from the peanut butter. It should be enough to satisfy that hunger but not overload the gut.
Snack packing for ‘away’ sporting events
If you can bring a cooler, items like string cheeses, turkey and cheese sandwiches, frozen yogurt pouches or unsweetened applesauce pouches are great choices.
“Portioned controlled nut butters like JIF peanut butter or Justin’s almond butter are great single-serving protein sources,” Higa said.
If you can’t bring a cooler, fruit like apples, bananas, pineapple, grapes and oranges will keep fine without ice for a few hours. So will cheeses and hard-boiled eggs.
There are plenty of good snacks that don’t require refrigeration. Beef jerky gives you protein, as do nuts and seeds, like sunflower or pumpkin seeds. Soy nuts or roasted soybeans are another good source of protein and also have a decent amount of carbs and fat.
For other carb ideas, try easy snacks like Cheerios, peanut butter crackers, granola bars, trail mix or whole-grain crackers like Wheat Thins.
Look for items that aren’t super high in fat, and the day before playing, don’t have tons of fiber.
Athletes need to watch out for fiber
We get fiber from plant-based foods like grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans that the body can’t break down. Fiber passes through undigested, keeping our digestive system clean and healthy, easing bowel movements and flushing cholesterol and harmful carcinogens from the body.
Some foods have added fiber and people can be sensitive to these “isolated or synthetic” fibers, which are commonly used to boost fiber content in processed food.
Look on the label for such ingredients as inulin (chicory root), beta-glucan soluble fiber, psyllium husk, cellulose, guar gum, pectin, locust bean gum, and hydroxypropylmethylcellulose (other names include fructooligosaccharide (FOS), oligofructose, and galactooligosaccharide (GOS).) These are all isolated or synthetic fibers.
Added fibers can cause bloating, diarrhea, and discomfort — not great things to deal with before you need to perform. Any bar that boasts fiber on its wrapper probably has an added fiber.
Bars can contain artificial sugars, which can have a laxative effect.
In advance of your trip, look at the ingredients of your favorite bars for high fiber and artificial sugars. Stay away from diet bars. To know if you’re sensitive to added fibers, try one of your favorites and see if symptoms arise when they are consumed before the bar is actually needed on game day.
Near game day is also not the time to decide to go extremely healthy by ordering the kale salad or loading up with non-starchy vegetables because they are high in fiber.
Make sure your young athlete is hydrated — mostly with water
When traveling – and anytime – choose water over sugary sports drinks. Sports drinks are loaded with sugar, which can be helpful for a quick, small boost in the middle of a game, but sports drinks are not great choices otherwise.
If you want to add a boost of flavor to your water, electrolyte additives are one option. They are not super high in sugar and help keep you hydrated. And, you’ll be losing a lot of electrolytes during the game.
“You can also think of natural fruit to enhance water like lemons, berries, watermelon,” Higa said. “It adds flavor without the excess sugars.”
How a young athlete should eat out on the road
Plan ahead. Look at where the players will be going and see what food options are available along the way or near the sports venue. Avoid fast food options and look for sandwich shops instead. Or, if you opt for fast-casual food, go for simple, healthy foods with protein and grains.
“Watch high-fat food choices as it takes longer to digest and can slow that athlete down or cause nausea or stomach upset for some,” Higa said.
Stay away from fried foods or anything new. The day before a big game is not the time to try new foods that you might not tolerate.
During road trips or trips out of town, research restaurant menus in advance. Avoid buffets. Ask hotels if breakfasts are included. Does the hotel have a microwave or refrigerator in the room? You may need to bring your favorite oatmeal based on the hotel’s breakfast options, and you will need a place to heat it.
It is also best to avoid the concession stand — which rarely has healthy options.
“Limit those ultra-refined carbohydrates such as cookies and candies pregame,” Higa said. “They may provide some quick energy but can also lead to a rapid crash in energy level.”