High-energy eating for athletes
If you're the parent of a teen athlete, you're busy. When you're not driving your sports enthusiast to or from practices, you're at the grocery store stocking up on enough food to keep your teen's hunger at bay. To meet the body's nutrient demands for growth plus the requirements of high energy for training, teen athletes may need over 4,000 calories a day.
Encourage a teen who is involved in strenuous activities or sports to choose more servings from the food groups of grain products and vegetables and fruit than the number suggested in Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating. Endurance athletes such as marathon runners, cyclists, and tri-athletes need 15 or more servings daily from these food groups, which provide carbohydrates, the main source of energy for exercise. The National Institute of Nutrition in Ottawa recommends that adolescents participating in high-intensity long-duration training consume a diet that provides about 60 per cent of total energy intake from carbohydrates. Offer your teen lots of whole-grain bread, potatoes, legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils), corn, pasta, rice, cereal, and fruit.
If he comes home talking about carbohydrate-loading before the big meet, talk to his coach. Carbohydrate-loading is a strict regime that involves consuming a very high carbohydrate diet and tapering activity for the two or three days before an event. It may be harmful to growing teens.
All athletes need plenty of iron-containing foods such as meat, legumes, vegetables, and grains. But dietary iron deficiency is even more prevalent in adolescents who are athletic, particularly female high-endurance athletes. Iron is the component in red blood cells that delivers oxygen to working muscles. A simple blood test at the doctor's office is all it takes to diagnose whether your daughter does have an iron deficiency. If she does, her doctor may suggest iron supplements. But ensure she takes no more than prescribed, since too much iron can cause abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.
The athletic teen needs to drink extra fluids to regulate her body temperature. Active muscles generate heat, and fluids help remove that heat. Without adequate fluids, your teen may become dehydrated, which causes fatigue and increases the risk of cramps and heat exhaustion. An adolescent's sweat losses are similar to those of an adult.
To prevent dehydration, your teen should drink before, during, and after exercise. Quenching one's thirst alone does not satisfy the body's need for water, especially during exercise when thirst is blunted. You need to make sure that your teen leaves the house with a filled water bottle and that the coach insists that she drink.
For training that lasts one hour or less, water is the preferred beverage. Avoid coffee, iced tea, and colas. The caffeine in these drinks acts as a diuretic and may increase urine output and fluid loss. When the level of training or competition and heat or humidity are extreme, your teen may benefit from a sports drink. If you're tired of paying big money for little bottles of sports drinks, mix up a huge jug of your own for a fraction of the cost. Simply combine 2 mL (1/2 tsp.) of salt, 375 mL (11/2 cups) of granulated sugar, 500 mL (2 cups) of unsweetened orange juice, and 4.5 L (18 cups) of water.
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Girls who are active in gymnastics, figure skating, diving, or dancing may feel pressured to stay the size and shape of a little girl. The stars in these fields, whom your daughter wants to emulate, have prepubescent body builds. Young girls in these sports may restrict eating to delay puberty, even though they may not be conscious of doing so. They may balk at eating even the minimum requirements set out in Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating.
If your daughter starts to develop womanly curves, her coach may wrongly ask her to go on a diet. Or there may be more subtle suggestions that she's no longer the right size. A comment like "That costume doesn't work -- it's way too tight now" is enough to make any young girl question her shape. Talk to the coach or trainers to be clear about their attitudes to body shape and health. If they are inappropriate, consider another club.
Or maybe the criticism comes from within your daughter. Standing in front of a floorlength mirror during ballet practice places an exaggerated emphasis on the body. You can count on her to compare her body shape with the bodies of the other girls in her class. You can also be sure that she'll want to be more like the thinner girls.
Limiting food in adolescence can jeopardize your daughter's health by stunting her growth. It can also delay or stop menstruation, which may weaken her bones and increase the risk of fractures. Worse yet, dieting can evolve into an eating disorder. If your daughter is developing large breasts, her balance will change, too, and she may not be able to do triple pirouettes the way she used to.
Your attitude is pivotal. Your daughter needs to know that her body hasn't betrayed her. She needs to be reassured that the world is still filled with opportunities for her. She needs to feel valued as a person, not just for her abilities on the parallel bars. If she decides to participate less in the sport, she may need your help and guidance filling the time she once spent in the gym. If your family has basked in the reflected glow of your child's talent, helping her change direction can be a difficult task. You, too, may have a hard time letting go of your child's dream of being an Olympic gymnast.
For more information on sport nutrition and sport-related eating disorders, contact the Sport Medicine and Science Council of Canada.
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