Proper nutrition is critical for both good health and optimal sports performance. For child athletes, an adequate diet is critical because nutritional needs are increased by both training and the growth process. Young athletes and their parents are frequently unaware of the appropriate components of a training diet. The following 4 areas are of particular concern.
Athletic training creates a need for increased caloric intake, and requirements relative to body size are higher in growing children and adolescents than at any other time in life. In child athletes, the energy intake must be increased beyond the needs of training to maintain adequate growth. Children who engage in sports in which slenderness is considered important for optimizing performance (ie, gymnastics, ballet dancing) may be at risk for compromising their growth. A risk for pathologic eating behaviors also may be increased in children participating in sports where leanness is rewarded.
Balance, moderation, and a variety of food choices should be promoted. The Food Guide Pyramid can be used to plan a diet that is balanced and provides sufficient nutrients and calories for both growth and training needs. Athletes who focus on particular dietary constituents (such as carbohydrates) at the expense of a well-rounded diet may potentially compromise their performance as well as their health.
The body's requirement for iron is greater during the growing years than at any other time in life. Adequate iron stores are important to the athlete to provide adequate oxygen transport (hemoglobin), muscle aerobic metabolism (Krebs' cycle enzymes), and cognitive function. However, athletes often avoid eating red meat and other iron-containing foods. Moreover, sports training itself may increase body iron losses.
Inadequate calcium intake is common in athletes, presumably because of their concern about the fat content in dairy foods. Normal bone growth, and possibly, prevention and healing of stress fractures, are contingent on sufficient dietary calcium.
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