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6 Food Rules Young Athletes Should Follow

By ActiveKids | Oct. 04, 2017, 7:14 p.m. (ET)

school lunch

Young athletes face distractions that can keep them from eating properly. From school and homework to training and competition, they don't always pay attention to how they fuel their bodies or take the time to understand the role nutrition plays in supporting their training and goals. Heather Mangieri, a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says there are six food rules that athletes, coaches and families should employ to help bring about that understanding. She reveals them in her book, “Fueling Youth Athletes.”

Covering weight management, supplementation, fueling, hydration and more, “Fueling Young Athletes” addresses the issues that families and athletes most often face, such as late-night practices, inconvenient school lunch times, demanding tournament schedules and travel leagues and lack of sleep. For more information on “Fueling Young Athletes” or other fitness and nutrition books and resources, visit

Eat Meals, No Grazing

Mangieri dislikes the word "snack" because it conjures up visions of chips, pretzels, sweets or a single piece of fruit. She would prefer to replace "snack" with "mini-meal" and encourages young athletes to eat one or two of them each day between regular meals. These mini-meals should contain at least two food groups and include a source of high-quality protein. The foods should also be filling so that they help the athlete feel satisfied until the next meal. "Eating a mini-meal makes you feel as though you actually ate a meal," says Mangieri, "and helps to prevent grazing and picking at foods between meals."

Never Use Food as a Reward

Mangieri, founder of Nutrition CheckUp, a nutrition consulting practice with expertise in sport nutrition, weight management, and disordered eating, stresses that you should never use food as a reward for good behavior. Using food as a reward teaches young athletes to categorize foods as good or bad and can lead to negative feelings about food. While studies show using tasty foods as a reward makes them more enticing, making kids stay at the dinner table until they finish their vegetables makes them less interested in healthy food. Instead, families should use other items as rewards for good behavior, such as books, music downloads or movies.

Be a Role Model

Giving advice is easy, but youth athletes are much more likely to do what their parents and coaches do, not what they say. "Nutrition is taught from an early age in the home," Mangieri says. "Expecting children or teenagers to eat vegetables when parents do not is unrealistic." The mother of three active children herself, she thinks parents should not only tell their young athletes how to eat healthfully, but also show them how. Similarly, coaches can do this by providing the right options for recovery or by selecting eating establishments after an event that offer healthy choices.

Make it a Family Affair

If a child needs to lose weight, it is not just the child's concern — it is the family's concern as well. When one child is struggling with weight, singling him or her out as having a problem can leave them feeling isolated and be detrimental to self-esteem. Mangieri recommends keeping the situation positive and focusing on how the family can eat better together. Family members should work together to eat healthier and become more physically active.

Create a Healthy Environment

Mangieri points out the obvious: you can't eat what is not in the house. If children or teenagers come home from school or practice hungry, they are likely to grab the first thing they see. So, if the cabinet is filled with chips, pretzels and sweet treats, there is a high likelihood the kids will choose those items. Telling kids not to eat those things will not work. Parents can help the children be successful by getting trigger or comfort foods out of the house and filling the cabinets with healthy foods and snacks that are ready to eat. "This does not mean that children should be deprived of foods they like," Mangieri explains. "If they really want ice cream, drive to the store and buy a small cone. Feed the craving without overindulging."

Power Down During Mealtimes

Eating well includes paying attention to what you are eating, not your electronics. When young athletes are engaged in texting conversations or watching videos during mealtime, it can lead to overeating. It is hard for them to pay attention to hunger and satiety cues when they are engaged with an electronic device. Mangieri recommends that families power down the devices, turn off the television and focus on fueling their bodies properly.

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The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.