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Triathlons for kids are popping up around the country. Professional triathlete and sports nutritionist Pip Taylor explains what, if anything, you should know about your child’s nutrition before he or she gets involved in a sport like triathlon.
Q: My daughter, who is 10, has started training for triathlons (and I love being a triathlete myself). She has a healthy appetite and is average size and weight for her age, but is there anything different nutritionally she or I need to know as she starts to train more?
A: Good nutrition is important not only for a child’s growth, maturation and sports training, but for getting through school and other activities mentally alert and energetically. Being tired may mean suffering through activities and not being able to achieve, which in turn leads to decreased enjoyment and less likelihood of long-term participation.
There are few studies that specifically address the nutrition requirements of athletic children. Instead, recommendations are drawn from studies of children engaged in an average amount of activity as well as the population of active adults. But there are several factors that sporting parents and kids should be mindful of, such as energy and vitamin needs, hydration and thermoregulation considerations.
Unlike adults, a child’s energy intake needs to account not only for activities but also for growth and maturation, meaning a positive energy balance is critical. Children are also less efficient than adults metabolically and mechanically, meaning they expend more energy when undertaking similar activities. If energy intake is too low, a young athlete may not reach her genetic potential for growth, may experience a delayed puberty and increased risk of injury, poor bone health and irregular menstruation. Frequent meals and snacks providing plenty of variety are helpful for fulfilling these increased energy needs of rapid growth periods. A growing child, and especially one playing sports, should not be limiting calories (except under medically supervised circumstances). Rather, if there is a need to reduce body fat levels, then food choices should be first modified so that fewer high-fat and calorie-dense snacks are eaten and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains provide the basis of energy. If body weight or size is a concern for you or your child, seek professional medical and possibly psychological advice.
Proportionally to adults, children and adolescents require more protein for growth and maturation, and if they are involved in sports, they may have even higher needs. However it is likely, as is the case with adults, that these needs are more than exceeded through most diets. For vegetarian or other restricted diets, protein sources have to be incorporated into every meal.
While fat intake may not be of concern to your child in the short term, high-fat and particularly high saturated-fat diets are not conducive to either long-term health or optimal training or racing performance. Use your role as a parent to help instill good habits by encouraging consumption of healthy fats such as avocadoes, nuts and fatty fish rather than French fries and doughnuts.
Athletes of any age should always be aiming for a lot of variety in order to maximize chances of meeting all the nutrient requirements. Key nutrients for growing kids are carbohydrate, protein, vitamin B, vitamin D, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and chromium. Kids in sport will have higher energy needs and micronutrient requirements than their inactive peers, but these needs should generally be met through the diet rather than relying on additional supplements. Two minerals that are worth paying extra attention to, though, are calcium and iron. Childhood is the time to build bone strength and mass, and calcium is vital to that process. Encourage your child to eat at least three servings of dairy per day. Iron is crucial, particularly for adolescent girls and vegetarians, who are more at risk of low iron levels. If you do have specific concerns, consult your family doctor or nutritionist.
One significant difference between children and adults is thermoregulation, the ability to stay cool. Children produce more heat relative to body mass when exercising than adults, and they also have greater surface area to mass ratio, leaving them more vulnerable to increasing body temperature when climatic temperatures are severe. This is compounded by a much lower sweat rate, meaning their ability to self-cool is also compromised. In practice, this means that a child’s tolerance of very hot conditions will be lower than that of adults, and children with high body fat are at even greater risk. Because sweating patterns don’t change until puberty, take measures to prevent dehydration and heat stress by encouraging drinking before, during and after training. Water is generally the best choice for kids; however, sports drinks—I recommend Accelerade or Endurox—can be particularly helpful because the sodium and flavor can encourage drinking by improving palatability.
Parents and dentists are often concerned about the effect of sports drinks on teeth. This is a relevant concern, but there are steps you can take to reduce the impact. Use a straw or squeeze bottle to reduce contact time with teeth by directing the drink straight into the mouth. Rinse with water, eat a casein-containing snack, found in calcium-rich foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese, or chew some sugar-free gum. These measures should be used as an interim solution in between regular teeth cleaning. Staying hydrated is important for teeth health because saliva acts as a protective buffer.
One of the most important things a parent can do for a child, her health and athletic goals is to set a good example. It sounds as though your daughter has taken on board your enthusiastic attitude toward exercise and sport, and a healthy and positive approach to food and nutrition is equally important. These attitudes and habits will be beneficial not only for any sporting successes, but more importantly for long-term athletic participation, good health and a positive self-image.