As football season begins for youth athletes, it's important for them to take care of their bodies before, during and after physical activity. Drinking the right fluids and eating the right foods is the best way for athletes to stay energized and hydrated. Oftentimes, however, kids and their parents aren't aware of what's really best to eat and drink during football season.
Kim Schwabenbauer is the Corporate Dietitian for Super Bakery and a member of USA Football's Health and Safety Committee. She said an important thing for parents of athletes ages 7 to 14 to be mindful of is proper fluid intake.
"I would say my first tip would be to drink two cups or 16 ounces of water about two hours prior to practice or prior to a game," Schwabenbauer said. "You do need to have water within your system because you are going to be sweating quite profusely whenever it's this hot in the fall."
Schwabenbauer also mentioned drinking sports drinks such as Gatorade for physical activity lasting longer than one hour.
"In practices or games that are lasting over an hour, they do want to consider consuming an electrolyte beverage - meaning something that has sodium and potassium," she said. "The kids don't necessarily need them in the first hour, but they do need them from an hour on."
Youth athletes should also have a different diet from youths not involved in sports. Given their higher level of physical activity, youth athletes should also have a slightly higher calorie intake to stay energized.
"They are expending energy and therefore calories are being burned through activity, so their activity rate is higher so they need higher calories," Schwabenbauer said. "At the same time, the makeup of the diet would also be different in that the carbohydrate portion of the diet needs to be a higher proportion."
Schwabenbauer said 60 to 65 percent of the child's diet should be complex carbohydrates, meaning those that contain fiber and whole grains. Carbohydrates are the main fuel source during activity, making it important for kids to eat carbohydrates at every meal.
Two or three hours before a game, Schwabenbauer suggests kids eat a snack or small meal. Kids don't need to eat anything during a game as much as they need to take proper fluids.
"All they really have to consume during the actual game would be water for the first hour and then an electrolyte beverage after that," she said. "In excessive heat, I would say an electrolyte beverage for the first hour."
Schwabenbauer also emphasized the importance of not diluting electrolyte beverages. She said kids do this a lot because it helps the drink taste better, but it actually takes away from the nutritional benefits of the drink.
"This practice I see quite a bit when they dilute the Gatorade with a lot of water, and something they need to know is that it doesn't perform in the same way that it's actually supposed to," Schwabenbauer said. "It doesn't give them as many electrolytes, calories, energy and things like that when they dilute it."
Within 30 minutes after a game, youth athletes should have at least a snack that has both carbohydrates and protein. Within two hours after practice or a game, Schwabenbauer said kids need to have an actual meal.
"That meal should contain all the components of a regular meal they would be eating, such as a high quality protein source like turkey, baked chicken breast or tacos with vegetables on it," she said. "They're also going to need a carbohydrate so they're going to need a pasta or bread component."
Schwabenbauer said the after-activity meal doesn't have to be dinner food. It could also be breakfast food such as omelets with meat and veggies and whole wheat bread as long as the meal contains a protein and carbohydrate.
For parents, planning ahead is an easier and healthier choice to make for their kids. They can grab food for practice when they need it and make sure they have healthy choices easily accessible.
"You save that time," Schwabenbauer said. "Portioning out snacks for the week, such as grapes and carrots, and it's all set and ready to go. It's just easy to whip out the snack from the refrigerator and not have to think a thing of it."
Proper nutrition is a key part of success for youth athletes on and off the field. Throughout the season, the right nutritious choices can help make the best of a young athlete's performance on the football field, while instilling healthful habits for life.