SEPTEMBER 14, 2012, 11:15 AM
When I ran high school cross-country 14 years ago, the bus that took us to meets always stopped at a Wendy’s or McDonald’s after the event. Most of the team would order some variation of burgers, fries and a big soda. It was fast, easy and satisfying.
Things haven’t changed much for young athletes, according to a recent study in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Toben Nelson, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, and his colleagues interviewed 60 parents of youth athletes, ages 6 to 13, in Minneapolis and its suburbs. They found that parents brought post-game snacks for the team that typically included such items as candy, ice cream, doughnuts, pizza, cheese puffs, chips, even something called ‘‘taco in a bag.” They also said that stopping at fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and Dairy Queen or grabbing a hot dog and a sugary sports drink at the concession stand during a meet was the norm.
‘‘Generally, it’s not what you would consider healthy,” one parent told the researchers. “It’s more of the things that the kids want to eat.”
For growing adolescents, a big meal after a tough game or race is necessary to replenish the body, said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University. And since they burn a lot of calories, they also need a fair amount of fat and protein.
“They are hungry,” Dr. Nestle said. “Especially if they are adolescent boys, they need phenomenal numbers of calories.” Serious athletes, she said, are burning so much fat and so many calories that they will not gain weight from eating a couple of burgers a week. “Sure, it would be better if they ate healthier, but we have to be realistic,” she said. “Fast food isn’t poison; it just isn’t daily fare.”
An active teenage boy requires about 3,000 calories a day, and an active teenage girl about 2,400 calories. Younger children, like those in Dr. Nelson’s study, require anywhere from 600 to 1,000 calories a day less.
Problems can arise, though, when young athletes are taking in more calories than they are burning. Studies show that more than one in four youth sport participants are overweight, and half of youths who are obese say they participate in a sport.
Very young athletes may be particularly prone to excess intake. “They’re not yet exercising as much, and they’re not growing as much,” Dr. Nestle said. “They don’t need to be eating every two hours.”
And other research has shown that players spend quite a bit of time sitting on the bench during practices and games.
“The premise of sports is not about health” and getting a good workout, said Jim Sallis, a professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego. “The premise of sports is about beating your opponent.”
Part of the tradition in American sports is also to celebrate with food, Dr. Sallis added.
Instead of the standard ice cream and pizza, he suggested some alternatives for snacks after games or workouts. “Maybe go to a grocery store, and everybody gets a couple pieces of fruit,” he said. “There are other ways to do it. Parents could take turns making something for the kids, or help the coach find healthy eating options.”
Alicia Kendig, a sports dietitian for the United States Olympic Committee who works with swimmers, figure skaters and other athletes, called fruits “nature’s perfectly sized snack” and said the most important thing was to eat natural, unprocessed foods and unsaturated fats that come from foods like avocados and almonds.
“Sports nutrition is now a competitive advantage,” she said. “If you’re eating correctly and you’re ingesting the correct nutrients, there are clear performance benefits.” Whole foods take longer to digest and keep the body full longer, she added.
In a report published last year, Sonia Kim, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that one in four teenagers ate fruit less than once a day, and one in three ate vegetables less than once a day.
Teenage girls should eat at least one and a half cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables each day, she said, and boys should eat two cups of fruit and three cups of vegetables daily. A cup is equal to about one medium apple, a dozen baby carrots or a large tomato.
“Fruits and vegetables are important for everyone, but especially for athletes,” Dr. Kim said.
An athletic 15-year-old boy needs about two and a half cups of fruit and four cups of vegetables a day. An athletic girl of the same age needs two cups of fruits and three cups of vegetables daily.
Dr. Kim encouraged parents to pack healthy meals for their children so they can avoid fast food, and to leave fruit out and readily available in the kitchen. Schools and sports teams should also provide and encourage healthier options, she said, including whole grains and nuts and other healthy protein sources, like lean meats and seafood.
For parents, the time and investment in setting a good example is worthwhile, so their young children mature into healthy, fit adults. “It will have a lifelong effect,” Dr. Kim said. “Habits formed early on track to younger adolescence and into at least young adulthood.”