NUTRITION 101

Before we get into the sports nutrition specifics, lets just recap some basic healthy eating messages that really form the foundation of a junior footballer diet. This is so important as these kids are still growing and developing and require constant fuel from nutrient rich foods each day.

Most of you probably know the about the five food groups, which include:

  • Grain foods (yellow section)
  • Vegetables (dark green section)
  • Fruit (light green section)
  • Dairy and dairy alternatives (purple section)
  • Meat and meat alternatives (blue section)

Basically, all kids (and adults) need to have a variety of foods from the five food groups each day. This will ensure that they receive a variety of nutrients to support their growth and development and:

  • support their immune system
  • maintain bone health
  • assist with brain function and concentration
  • maintain muscle mass
  • maintain digestive health
  • maintain good energy levels and
  • prevent nutrient deficiencies such as iron deficiency

If any child has to exclude or limit foods from any food group, it’s a good idea to chat at a dietitian to make sure that they can still optimise their diet to make sure they aren’t missing out on anything. You can get more information on how much of each food group a child or teen needs here

The good thing is, because active kids tend to be quiet hungry and focussed on eating regularly, it can be quite easy for them to meet the general guidelines for good health if choosing wisely. Eating around training and competition provides great opportunities for them to choose from these food groups and meet recommendations.

To make sense of the sports nutrition specifics, we thought it would be good to explain some important nutrient groups first.

Carbohydrates explained

Active kids need to eat good quality foods regularly in order to fuel their energy needs. A regular day for an active kid can often be a busy one – especially when they are training before or after an already active day at school. So if they skip meals, don’t eat enough, or eat the wrong foods, they can feel tired, irritable, lethargic and probably wont feel like training at their best.

If we focus on their active muscles and brain, glucose is the preferred fuel source to keep them going. Glucose comes from carbohydrate foods. Just like a car needs a continuous supply of fuel to keep it going, a child’s body requires a continues supply of carbohydrate. When they go harder for longer, their fuel stores (AKA muscle carbohydrate stores) will start to become depleted and they will need to be topped up to keep them going. This means basing meals and snacks on carbohydrate foods.

Carbohydrates foods are foods containing starches or sugars (natural or added). Within about two hours of digestion all starches and sugars will be broken down to, or converted to glucose. This glucose gets taken up into the trillions of cells in muscles and tissues in order for energy to be produce to power muscle contraction, brain function and other bodily functions. Carbohydrates are therefore a pretty important part of an active kid’s diet!

Carbohydrate foods include:

  • Grain foods – breads, crumpets, bagels, crispbreads, rice cakes, cereals, pasta, noodles, rice, quinoa, semolina, barley, polenta, crisp bread and bulgar.
  • Starchy vegetables (potato, sweet potato and corn) and legumes (e.g. baked beans, kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils).
  • Fruit – including tinned, frozen or fresh
  • Milk based dairy foods and soy alternatives – milk, yoghurt and custard
  • Table sugar, honey, jam and syrups (e.g. golden syrup)
  • Cakes, muesli bars, pikelets, pancakes, biscuits – in general, these options should be eaten occasionally but can be modified to make good pre-training snacks at times.
    ice-cream, chocolate, chips, lollies and sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, cordials and sports drinks.

A car will drive better with good quality petrol (versus the cheap nasty stuff), just like active kids will have better energy levels with good quality food throughout the day and around training. This means that most carbohydrate choices should be from nutrient dense options such as fruit, milk, yoghurt, wholegrain breads, cereal, legumes and vegetables (versus from lollies, chocolate, chips, pastries and sugar sweetened beverages). These foods will not only fuel their muscles, but deliver a whole range of fibres, vitamins, minerals and plant-compounds required for their everyday health and wellbeing.

The importance of protein

Protein is another important nutrient for junior football players. Protein can help support their overall growth and development by building, maintaining and repairing muscles, cells and tissues in their body. A bit like carbohydrates, protein foods should be offered regularly over the day. This means including a source of good quality protein at each main meal and in their post-training snack. Offering small amounts of protein regularly and after training (instead of just at one meal in the day) has been shown to help with muscle recovery which can help junior football players gain strength and power, and prevent muscle fatigue after training.

Protein in food is broken down into smaller units called amino acids. The amino acids can then be reused by the body to make the proteins that it needs to maintain muscles, bones, blood and organs. You can think of a body protein like a ladder, with the ladder rungs being the amino acids required to join the protein together for it to be useful.

Good sources of protein include:

  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Red meat
  • Legumes
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Dairy foods

A bit about fats

All junior football players need some fat in their diet. Fat is important to help store certain vitamins from our food, provide essential fatty acids that our body can’t make and to support a kid’s overall growth and development. However, nutritious foods containing healthy fats should be consumed more often than nutrient poor, very high fat foods such as pies, pastries, deep-fried foods, biscuits, cakes and chips. These should be enjoyed on occasion.

Unsaturated fats are the healthy types of fat, whereas saturated and trans fats are the unhealthy types, as explained below:

Unsaturated fat

Unsaturated fats are classified as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats depending on their structure and affect on the body. Overall, unsaturated fats can reduce inflammation in the body and improve the health of blood vessels – therefore improving the health of the cardiovascular system and brain function (important for both children and adults).

Polyunsaturated fats include oily fish (e.g. tuna, sardines and salmon), sunflower oil, grape-seed oil, soya been oil, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadaemia nuts, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, tahini and omega 3 enriched eggs.

Monounsaturated fats include olive oil, olives, canola oil, peanut oil, almonds, cashews and avocados.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are mainly animal fats found in foods such as fatty and processed meats (such as salami and sausages), dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt, custard), butter, cream, coconut products, ice cream and solid cooking fats such as lard, copha and ghee. They are also found in many processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, pies, sausage rolls and pastries.

Although the type of fat found in dairy foods is the saturated type, eating dairy in the context of a healthy diet is not detrimental to health. Milk and yoghurt are also excellent meal and snack choices (including post-training snacks) to provide good quality carbohydrate, protein, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin D and zinc to help with muscle recovery and optimal bone health. If your child cannot eat dairy foods due to an allergy or intolerance, soy products with added calcium can be great alternatives. You can read more about other milk alternatives here.

Trans fats

Trans fats can be found naturally in some foods or produced as a result of food processing. It is the unnatural trans fats that can have the same negative effects as saturated fats on our health. These trans fats are mostly found in pies, pastries, savoury packaged snack foods, cakes and biscuits as well as some deep fried take away foods.

To put this all this fat talk simply, cook with healthy fats and include nutritious, healthy fats such as oily fish, avocado and nuts in the diet.

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