What young athletes should eat before and after the game

For young athletes, planning is key to eating the right nutritious foods at the right times, said University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital pediatric gastroenterologist and nutritionist Timothy A. S. Sentongo, MD.

An athlete’s diet and lifestyle should address both long and short-term goals. The long-term nutritional goals include good hydration, eating patterns, and food choices that support normal growth while also meeting daily exercise demands. Short-term goals involve appropriate dietary preparation for each athletic activity. The long-term goals involve regularly consuming a balanced diet of three standard meals and at least two snacks. The preferred snack should include protein and carbohydrates (carbs) with a low glycemic index. The glycemic index refers to a food’s ability to raise blood glucose. Examples of high glycemic index carbs that should be minimized include sweets, pastries, and refined grains. These cause sharp blood sugar spikes and lows, leading to more sweet cravings resulting in binge eating, which is not good for an athlete.

While younger kids who compete in shorter games might not need to pay as much attention to their game-time nutrition, older kids who are serious about their performance should follow these nutrition rules to maximize their athletic abilities.

“If you want to be at the top of your game, you need good hydration, a meal of complex carbohydrates the day before, and a high-protein diet after,” Sentongo said. “If you follow those rules, your performance will be better than someone who eats too many sugary and fatty foods.”

Night Before the Game: Carb-load and Avoid New Foods

Starchy foods like whole-wheat pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, broccoli, and grilled chicken offer a carbohydrate-rich meal that will provide the right fuel for the next day’s event and protein to fuel recovery. Broccoli adds calcium, vitamins A and C. Sentongo recommends avoiding new foods that might upset your stomach during the game.

Before the Game: Stay Hydrated and Don’t Eat Fats

Young athletes can stay hydrated by using this easy equation: take their weight (100 lbs.), divide it in half (50 lbs.), and turn that number into ounces (50 oz). That’s how much water they should drink each day. Staying hydrated is especially important on the day of the game. “That will help prevent cramps and fatigue,” Sentongo said.

If you want to be at the top of your game, you need good hydration, a meal of complex carbohydrates the day before and a high-protein diet after.

If you need to pack a snack for your child to eat before an after-school game or practice, Sentongo recommends something low in glycemic index and starchy, like graham crackers, whole grain bagel/bread or a banana. Anything too fatty, like junk food or milk, is digested slowly and will make athletes feel slow and sluggish. Athletes should also avoid eating too many high-fiber foods, like beans, fruits and vegetables, which are also difficult to digest and cause stomach problems on the field.

During the Game: Refuel as Needed

Some parents are encouraged to bring snacks for the kids to eat mid-game. These include a small, plain or whole grain bagel, graham crackers, dried fruit, sliced orange, and half a banana. While parents often pack sugary treats like granola bars, Sentongo recommends the same starchy foods kids should eat before the game. “Anything too sweet will be rapidly absorbed and expended, and they won’t benefit from it,” he said.

While on the sidelines, athletes should drink both water and sports drinks like Gatorade which have electrolytes and potassium to help them recover. Though some athletes are getting creative with hydration options – pickle juice has grown in popularity in recent years – Sentongo recommends sticking with sports drinks, which have the right combination of salt and sugar that increases the absorption of electrolytes in the body.

Post-game: Repair with Protein

After the game, athletes should eat a high-protein meal that contains poultry, meats, fish, or legumes. “When you compete, you break down muscle. The protein helps repair it,” Sentongo said.

Though athletes may feel fatigued, Sentongo cautions against overhydrating, which can cause light-headedness and even more fatigue. That’s where sports drinks can come in handy. “You can overhydrate with plain water, but sports drinks will replenish those electrolytes that water dilutes,” he said.

Avoid Energy Drinks

Energy drinks are becoming increasingly popular with young athletes. However, this is mostly because of marketing and not safety. Many young athletes who consume energy drinks strongly believe they have a positive effect. However, research shows that young athletes who rely on energy drinks are more likely to engage in health-damaging physical intensity and experience more adverse health symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, hyperactivity, and insomnia (poor sleep). Therefore, the consumption and reliance on energy drinks should be discouraged in athletes.

Ruba K. Azzam, MD, MPH

Pediatric Gastroenterology Team

At Comer Children's, your child benefits from the combined expertise of many of the nation's leading specialists in gastrointestinal diseases. Our gastroenterologists are nationally and internationally recognized for providing breakthrough care of complex digestive diseases.

Meet Our GI Team
Timothy A. S. Sentongo, MD

Timothy A. S. Sentongo, MD

Pediatric gastroenterologist Timothy A. S. Sentongo, MD, specializes in chronic disorders that affect growth and nutrition in children, including short bowel syndrome, food intolerances, feeding problems and cystic fibrosis.

Learn more about Dr. Sentongo

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