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Give young athletes the fuel to move

By Ann Litt

Food supplies us with fuel, otherwise known as calories. The body, regardless of age, gender, or activity level, burns a certain amount of calories just to stay alive. Calories are burned during normal body functions, such as pumping blood, breathing, and even batting eyelashes. The calories burned during these basic functions determine a body’s resting metabolic rate (RMR). The RMR is simply the number of calories burned by the body to keep it going.

The amount of calories a particular body needs is influenced by many factors. Basic calorie ranges, which take into consideration the RMR, have been established for growing children. These ranges are just starting points for determining calorie needs and should be used only as a guide to get a general idea of the calories burned by active, growing children.

Along with the basic calories athletes burn to run their bodies, they also burn calories through exercise. The longer and harder they exercise, the more calories they burn. We have well-documented formulas to determine how many calories an adult athlete burns playing various sports. These formulas, however, are not applicable to children. The formulas generally underestimate calories burned by child athletes by as much as 30 percent.

An adapted formula is included to help you determine a general range of the number of calories children burn while playing selected sports. To determine an estimate of the total calories expended, add the number of calories burned by playing the sport to the number of basic calories needed to run the body.

Setting an ideal calorie level for a growing athlete is tricky. The calories derived from written formulas and the average intake set for children and teenagers provide only a ballpark figure. Calorie needs fluctuate tremendously from child to child, depending on growth, age, and activity. To assign a specific calorie level is fruitless and ignores a child’s innate capability to self-regulate his intake.

The best way to judge whether children are eating enough is to watch their growth and weight. Are they growing at the rate they should? Are they maintaining a good weight? “Enough” isn’t necessarily what we think it should be. Enough means children are eating a healthy diet that gives them the energy they need to play, grow, and stay healthy. Although some adults are tempted to be very scientific in their approach, in this case practicality should prevail. Watch your athlete’s energy level, weight, growth pattern, and general health. If these show the right measures, your athlete is probably eating enough calories.

When athletes don’t eat enough food, their bodies protect themselves by slowing down their metabolism. A slow metabolism affects how athletes feel and perform. These athletes tire more easily, and their bodies lack the energy to grow as they should.

It is sometimes difficult for active, growing kids to keep up with the amount of food they need to eat. The adults in their lives need to be involved with their meal and snack planning. As an adult, make sure your young athlete eats and drinks properly before, during, and after practices and competitions. This helps athletes stay nourished and demonstrates a commitment to team nutrition.


This is an excerpt from Fuel for Young Athletes.

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It’s generally accepted that the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)—-the standard nutritionists use to assess adequacy of a diet—-for protein is too low for athletes.
An athlete’s training should include lessons about foods that are and aren’t well tolerated before physical activity.

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