Carbohydrates, Protein & Fat: The Nuts & Bolts of an Athlete’s Diet

When I work with athletes of all ages, the first thing I point out to them is that although they may not have control over play time or positioning during a game, they do have control over what they put in their body.  Properly fueling their body can give them an edge over their teammates.  As parents, we can play an integral role in developing healthy habits in our kids, but to do this, it is important to understand the 3 main components of food and why they are so important.

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Misinformation is rampant in the field of sports nutrition and as parents, it can be difficult to sift out fact from fiction.  Much of the information out there is geared toward adults, yet it is important to remember we are dealing with growing children with very different nutritional requirements.


Kids need a team of nutrients to perform their best: Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat.  Limiting one group can have a direct impact on both growth and athletic performance.


CARBOHYDRATES are the main fuel source for movement and brain function.   In a nutshell, carbs are the gasoline that fuel our athletes and should be the anchor of a balanced sports nutrition diet.  Children are limited in their ability to store carbohydrates (glycogen) and it is essential for them to consume a diet that provides 45-65% of calories coming from this energy source.


Yes, kids need to be on a HIGH CARB DIET.


CARBOHYDRATE FOOD SOURCES:  Fruits, Veggies, Dairy Products, Whole Grains, Rice, Pasta, Breads, Rolls, Bagels, Cereals and Crackers.  Ideally, we want to put an emphasis on COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES but sometimes pre-workout/competition, excess fiber can cause cramping and diarrhea and may need to be limited at this time.  Listen to your athlete and figure out what works best.  A peanut butter and jelly sandwich or pretzels and yogurt are easily digested and a good source of both carbs and calories.


PROTEIN is vital for the proper growth and development of a young athlete and is involved in both rebuilding and repairing muscles post workout. Protein is a hot topic in sports nutrition and although the growing athlete may have a slightly higher requirement than the non-athlete, this requirement can easily be filled with food rather than supplements. The key is to spread their protein across the span of the day to help keep them full.


PROTEIN FOOD SOURCES: Meat, Poultry, Eggs, Legumes (beans), Cheese, Yogurt, Milk, Cottage Cheese and Fish.


FAT is a concentrated source of calories and essential for the rapidly growing child. Fat helps the body absorb certain nutrients, and plays a key role in brain development.   Fat adds flavor to foods and is often the “vehicle” to get our kids to eat healthy foods.  For example, adding some low fat ranch dressing to a veggie platter often results in more veggies getting eaten!


FAT FOOD SOURCES: Nuts, Seeds, Oils, Salad Dressing, Peanut, Almond and other Nut Butters, Butter, Whole Fat Dairy Products and avocados.  Proper timing of fat intake is key as it can be difficult to digest pre-workout/competition.


Young athletes need all three macronutrients (carb, protein, fat) in their diet everyday for top performance.  Understanding the importance of each component is the first step in carving out a healthy sports nutrition diet.


I encourage you to send me any food/nutrition questions you would like me to address.  We are all in this together and chances are there are a bunch of us out there experiencing the same issue!


Noreen Gallo MS RD

Registered Dietitian


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