Q: My daughter's volleyball practices are directly after school. When lunch is at 11:45 a.m., what should she eat and drink when school is out at 3:20 p.m. and practice is 4-6 p.m.?
-Louise, Livermore, Calif.
A: The good news (unless you are the parent buying the groceries) is that athletic kids need more calories than their less active counterparts. But that does not mean "no-holds barred" consumption. Food needs to be high quality to support the extra physical output and build bone and muscle.
First, a brief recap on what macronutrients comprise good food:
1. Protein: found in meat, fish, eggs, dairy food and in the combination of grains and legumes like soy, peanuts and chickpeas (this is especially important for vegetarians). Vital nutrients like calcium and iron are in dairy foods and meat, respectively. Calcium is essential for bone strength and growth; iron is important for the blood. Protein should comprise about 15-20 percent of the daily calories, or 0.5 to 1.0 gram of protein per pound of body weight, or 0.5 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
2. Carbohydrates: found in grains, fruits and vegetables. Carbohydrates are the body's preferred food because they are the quickest and most efficient source of energy. Many essential vitamins (such as B-complex, C) are found in these foods. Carbohydrates should comprise about 60 percent of the daily caloric intake.
3. Fats: fortunately, or unfortunately, these are not hard to get into an American diet. Fat is found in meat, cheese and nuts and any butter or oils used in food preparation. Fats are important for the utilization of vitamins A, E, D, and K and should comprise about 20-35 percent of the daily caloric intake, with an emphasis on monounsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, and canola, olive and peanut oil.
4. Water: proper hydration throughout the day and during a work out is essential for good performance and good health. And, only "water" is water; soft drinks and caffeinated beverages are not water. Sport drinks should be necessary only when the workout is especially intense or it is very hot.
Ideally, young athletes should eat a high quality, balanced meal about one and a half hours before working out or competing. In your daughter's situation, this would mean some sort of "booster" fuel at about 2 or 2:30 p.m. The primary purposes of pre-workout snacks are to sustain a good level of energy and prevent hunger. If the meal at lunchtime was substantial (complex carbohydrate, protein, some fat), there should be no need to consume another large meal before practice. Half a sandwich (such as peanut butter, banana and honey) or dried fruit mixed with nuts and a yogurt are better than sugary "energy" bars that have little sustaining power. (Energy bars that are low in sugar and contain some fiber and protein are OK.)
After a game or practice, replace the glycogen/carbohydrate burned and electrolytes lost (calcium/potassium/sodium) with a food that combines carbohydrate and protein such as half a sandwich or yogurt.
No young athlete should ever take diet advice from school chums, teammates or even coaches. If there are dietary concerns, enlist the professional and licensed services of a registered dietitian (not a "nutritionist"). And, no one should ever skip breakfast!
-American Dietetic Association, EatRight.org, 800-877-1600.
-"Fuel for Young Athletes," Ann Litt, Tulip Hill Press, 2005.
-"Fit Kids for Life," Jose Antonio, and Jeffrey Stout, Basic Health Publications, 2005.
-"Sports Nutrition Guide Book," third edition, Nancy Clark, 2003.