Q&A: What Should I Feed My Athletic Kids?

Q. My kids are junk-food junkies. I try to get them to eat more broccoli and bananas, but I'm rarely successful.

Despite popular belief, kids (and their parents) do not have to eat a perfect diet to have a good diet. Most active children can meet their nutrient needs within 1,200 to 1,500 calories of a variety of wholesome foods. Hence, they do have space for some "junk"--in moderation.

Your children may actually have trouble getting adequate calories if you strictly limit treats. To find the right balance, I recommend Ellyn Satter's book Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Ellyn is an expert on how to encourage kids to eat well.

One trick to reducing your children's intake of not-so-good foods is to have available a healthful "second lunch" after school/before sports. Enjoying a bean burrito, English muffin pizza, cereal with milk, fruit smoothie or a sandwich is preferable to the standard routine of munching on candy bars, cookies and chips.

A healthful "second lunch" is particularly important for kids who eat poorly at school lunch.

Q. As my son is training harder, he's getting very skinny. How can I tell if he's eating enough to grow normally?

Your pediatrician can tell you if your son is growing normally by routine height and weight measurements plotted on a growth chart. (You can print your own growth charts at www.cdc.gov/growthcharts.)

Hard training will not stunt his growth--as long as he is eating adequately. If he seems overly fatigued and lethargic, he may be eating too little. Encourage more milk and juice (in place of water) as easy ways to boost calories.

Active children may need as many calories as their parents--if not more. For example, the average 6-year-old needs 1,800 calories/day (40 cals/lb) plus more for sports. The average 9-year-old boy or girl (75 lbs) requires about 2,500 calories/day (32 calories/lb).

Add on sports and the number jumps by 300 to 600+ calories. (To estimate your child's calorie needs, use the Nutrition Calculator at www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/etext/000035.html.)

Q. My 10-year-old daughter, a skater, wants to lose weight but she really doesn't have excess body fat. What Should I do?

Dieting is standard among young figure skaters, dancers, gymnasts, runners and athletes in sports that emphasize leanness. But the pressure to acquire the "perfect" body can bode trouble ahead if the dieter has issues about being "not good enough," a poor self-image and low self-esteem.

All too often, diets are not just about weight. Dieting increases the risk for developing a full-blown eating disorder.

As a parent, you need to downplay body size as an important currency of worth, and teach your daughter to love herself from the inside out. Never comment about the size of large children; your child will conclude she must be thin to be valued and loved, and she will start dieting.

This is particularly important with young girls who are coping with body changes during their struggle to be the best at their sport. Their efforts to control weight may lead to a frustration, guilt, despair and failure--and an eating disorder.

Nancy Clark MS, RD counsels casual exercisers and competitive athletes in her private practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill, MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and food guides for new runners, marathoners, or cyclists are available via www.nancyclarkrd.com.
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