In this era of technology driven lifestyles we often hear about the sedentary nature of American youth but what about the other end of that spectrum? There are many children that lead active lifestyles, and weight gain is not a problem at all, in fact many active children struggle just to maintain their body weight. And with coaches often encouraging (especially male athletes) to “bulk up,” it can be a very frustrating time in a young athlete’s life but it does not have to be. We can and should strive to build a strong nutritional foundation with all children and it’s extremely important for highly active children.
What they eat (food!) will absolutely allow a young athlete to build the muscle they need to get stronger and that point needs to be hammered home early and often so they don’t seek alternatives or a quick fix (Performance Enhancing Substances) that they think will allow them to build muscle faster.
While all calories are not created equal (more on this later) we can utilize calorie counts to give us a general idea of the total energy requirements for children. It is estimated that highly active 8 year-old boys need between 2300-2400 calories while 8 year-old girls need between 2100-2200. As children mature their energy requirements expectedly rise, 3500-3600 calories for 15 year-old boys and 2900-3000 for 15 year-old girls. * Note: Sedentary girls and boys require energy intakes that are 20-30% lower than those indicated above.
Children are very efficient in regard to nutrient partitioning. Essentially, whenever they eat something that food has to go somewhere. It can be burned for energy, stored as body fat or it can be utilized for lean tissue stores such as muscle protein or muscle glycogen. Highly active children are very efficient at partitioning these nutrients to preferential areas such as energy burning or lean tissue stores. They are not as efficient at storing body fat, which is positive unless taken to extremes (as in cutting weight for a sport like wrestling or for aesthetic purposes). Restricting food intake in developing youth could actually thwart natural growth and maturation because their metabolic needs are so high to fuel these processes.
With this in mind there are two main areas that need to be addressed nutritionally in highly active youth to ensure they are getting enough fuel, vitamins, minerals and essential fats for optimal maturation and the building and maintenance of lean tissues.
First, most children go way to long between feeding opportunities. Some may go as long as 6-8 waking hours without fueling their bodies. This is a sure fire way to put the brakes on natural physical maturation as well as any hopes of maintaining their bodyweight. Active children will have low body fat stores so it will not be a good source to fuel them throughout the day. They need energy from carbohydrate sources like fruit, vegetable, and properly prepared whole grains to provide their daily energy requirements. When they are getting enough fuel the protein they eat can be used to build and repair muscle tissue. Without a regular intake of fuel they are likely sacrificing lean tissue stores as a source of energy.
So your first priority with highly active children is to encourage them to eat something every 2-3 hours. I know that may seem unrealistic especially now that they are back in school but I am not talking about sitting down for a full meal (though ideally they would be doing that 3 times daily). Every 2-3 hours set their favorite E-device to remind them that it’s time to get some fuel. This feeding opportunity is just a chance to grab a quick snack like an apple or mixed nuts to ensure they have adequate fuel to perform well in class and practice. They could take advantage of the time between classes and/or right after school to fuel up.
Hopefully their teachers don’t give them a hard time about eating something because it’s actually to their benefit. A child running low on fuel or who may be hopped up on sugary gum or candy is a recipe for poor attention and/or disruptive behavior.
The second focus should be on complete feedings. Most kids snack on “nutrient light” foods like cookies, chips, bagels, gummies, etc. These foods provide a quick surge of energy that is followed just a precipitously with an energy “crash!” These snacks will not provide energy sustaining fuel. As an alternative at every meal and most of their other feeding opportunities a child should strive to make it complete. This can be accomplished by making sure that every meal contains a complete protein, fruit and vegetable. And if they just trained the addition of starchy carbohydrates like brown rice, oats or sweet potatoes would be a good choice.
A complete protein is a food that either is an animal (chicken, beef) or came from an animal (eggs, cheese). I should note that for those that choose not to eat animal foods they could still get complete proteins by combining other sources. Examples would be peanut butter on whole wheat bread and/or beans and rice. There are many combinations to choose from but even if they do add up to a complete protein the amino acid (combine to form proteins) profiles are not ideal particularly in rapidly maturing youth. It is vey important that if your developing young child does not eat animal protein that you consult with a nutrition professional to avoid nutrient deficiencies.
We also need to think beyond the simple idea that in order to gain weight you need to consume more food and to lose weight you must eat less. In other words, energy input and output are interrelated not independent. As a result, by decreasing food intake you can also down regulate energy expenditure (i.e. you may feel lethargic like running on empty). While increasing food intake can boost energy levels, and when you feel more energetic you will inevitably burn more fuel. This may help explain why extremely active children seemingly eat all day long but still seem to lose bodyweight.
So the default prescription is to tell young athletes that in order to lose weight, they must eat less, and to gain weight they must eat more, this is not always the best advice because not every child who’s overweight is over eating on calories while every child who’s underweight is under eating on calories. In both cases the young athletes may simply be eating to few “nutrient dense” calories and too much “nutrient poor” calories.
So the notion that kids can eat anything because they are young and will just burn it off is very short sighted. They may not be gaining weight while eating heavily processed foods like sugary breakfast cereals, Pop-Tarts and pizza but they also aren’t getting any bodybuilding nutrients like complete proteins, vitamins, minerals and essential fats. So it is quite likely a child will see significant improvements in body composition and athletic performance without drastically changing caloric intake so long as they choose nutrient rich foods.
A third point to consider in this whole equation (body weight maintenance for young athletes) is somewhat related to the first point of frequency of feeding, and that is the concept of post-workout nutrition. In most cases a practice/workout/game will take it’s toll on an athlete’s energy reserves and muscle tissues. Post training nutrition, ideally 15-30 minutes after competition would include ingesting some form of complete protein and carbohydrate source to spare muscle protein breakdown and spur it’s regeneration while also replenishing depleted energy reserves. This could come in the form of a turkey sandwich or a bottle of milk and a banana.
For convenience a protein bar would make sense but most are of low quality as are most protein powders and that’s a track I like to avoid going down with kids. You can never be certain as to what’s in most supplements and the nutrients are “packaged” disproportionately to what the body is used to when consuming whole food sources. And whole foods provide essential nutrients in a form the body can not only recognize and utilize but they also provide things (iron, zinc, fiber, essential fats) that most children need more of.
In summary, if your child is struggling to maintain their bodyweight a very good strategy would be to ensure they eat something every 2-3 hours (especially after training) and strive to make most of those feedings complete with high quality foods.
Post Workout Options:
Organic Milk (even chocolate is OK) and Banana
Beef Jerky and Apple
String cheese and grapes
Single serve cottage cheese and peach
Greek yogurt with berries
Vega Protein Bar (vegan option, only bar that I have found with better than average ingredients)
Between class/After School snacks (easy to store no cooler required):
Mixed nuts (pecans, cashews, almonds, walnuts)
Trail mix (even with dark chocolate chips if it gets them to eat nutritious nuts)
Jerky links (beef, turkey)
* Berardi. John. (2007). Developmental Essentials. 2nd Edition.