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Nutrition Impacts Performance

By Nancy L. VanderSluis, M.D.

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Proper nutrition plays a vital role in a child’s academic, recreational and competitive performance. By knowing what to provide for your child, you can keep his or her performance at its peak.

Nutrition Affects Academic Performance

Nutrition can affect children academically in a couple ways. First, an improper diet can leave your child feeling tired, affecting cognitive abilities, memory, creativity and decision-making. When pressured to focus on school subjects, your child may appear moody, cranky or just frustrated due to lack of concentration. Another problem that children without proper nutrition face is a weakened immune system. Without the nutritional value of a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner, children tend to get sick more often. This can lead to missing days of school and possibly experiencing developmental or learning problems. Certain vision and hearing conditions have also been linked to infections and nutritional deficiencies.

Boys Town Pediatrics recommends starting the day with a wholesome breakfast of whole-wheat toast, a whole-grain bagel or a multi-grain cereal to help keep your child full until lunchtime. If you are in a hurry, pack a baggie of assorted fruits with granola and a yogurt. Parents can also sign up for a breakfast program at their child’s school.

Nutrition Affects Athletic Performance

Children and teens who are active in sports need proper nutrients in their diet to help support and sustain high levels of activity. Because athletes need fuel for endurance, energy and personal growth, they may consume anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 calories per day. The following are key components that are essential to monitor in the diet of active youth:

  • Hydration - Children need more liquids than adults because they are more likely to suffer from heat exhaustion or stroke when practicing in the heat. A good rule of thumb is 4 to 6 ounces of liquid for every 20 minutes of intense exercise.
  • Carbohydrates - Eating a meal high in carbohydrates before intense activity will help fuel the mind and body. If the high level of play continues for one to two hours, athletes may need to refuel with a snack during the activity. Good sources of carbohydrates are oatmeal, pasta, potatoes and starchy vegetables.
  • Protein - Before and during play, protein will maintain and rebuild muscles being worked by intense activity. After a big game or dance rehearsal, be sure to give your child a snack with both carbohydrates and protein to help refuel the body and rebuild muscle. A peanut butter sandwich is a great option.
  • Minerals/Vitamins - Children who consume the required amount of servings from a variety of foods may not need a supplement. It is best to talk with your pediatrician before starting a supplement.

The night before a game or high-endurance activity, plan your meal to include both carbohydrates and protein. Avoid “carbo-loading,” meaning only eating carbohydrates, as this will only give athletes one source of energy. An example of an effective pre-activity dinner is spaghetti and meatballs in marinara sauce, with side of broccoli or a salad.

It is important to load up on nutrients the day of an intense activity as well. Two hours before your activity, eat a meal that includes both carbohydrates and a protein. A turkey sandwich, peanut butter toast or oatmeal with fruit will all help fulfill an athlete’s pre-activity nutritional needs. If possible, eat a snack during an intense activity if it lasts longer than one or two hours, and make sure you refuel the body with carbohydrates and protein after the activity is over.

By consuming the right nutrients, young athletes will have enough energy to endure an intense workout and recover faster after they are done.​