You are what you eat.
Whether you want to take part in sports recreationally or as an elite athlete, proper nutrition is a key component to a successful experience.
For children and adolescents, healthy eating is especially important to support not only their sports performance but also their growth and development.
At the inaugural Thunder Bay Sports Summit, held on Saturday at the West Thunder Community Centre, experts weighed in on nutrition, along with other sports-related topics.
Organized by the City of Thunder Bay, with the collaboration of various partners, the event attracted close to 90 participants that included athletes, coaches and administrators for a chance to discuss pressing issues in the city’s sports community and network with each other.
Thunder Bay’s Haley Irwin, a three-time Olympic medallist for the Canadian women’s hockey team, was part of an Olympic panel discussion and a seminar on concussion management. She says children and adolescents in sports should eat everything in moderation and should have a balanced diet.
“They should definitely go see a nutritionist and talk to a family doctor for the right advice,” says Irwin, who won silver with Canada at the Pyeongchang Games in South Korea this past February.
In her early days in hockey, Irwin would have chicken and pasta, along with chocolate milk to help her recover from the rigours of the sport.
Irwin says it wasn’t until she attended her first Team Canada development program training camp in Calgary when she was 16 years old that she was formally introduced to nutrition.
“I understood that food fuels the body and you can use it to your advantage when training,” she says, adding that she picked up the practice of using a food log at the camp.
Though proper eating is critical to achievements in sports, Irwin cautions that youth need to keep things in perspective.
“It’s important to be a kid,” she stresses.
Susan Auch, Olympic speed skating medallist and current CEO of Speedskating, also spoke of her experiences during the Olympic panel discussion. She urges youth to eat less processed foods and more whole foods. She suggests that the diet of young athletes should touch on all the food groups.
Auch grew up with whole foods, since she said her mother was a good cook. She preaches that youth in sports should avoid anything white, like flour and sugar, and that they should eat a balanced diet that includes protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and less starches.
“Kids have different metabolisms,” Auch says. “They should not count calories and not focus on weight. They should not eat in front of the TV, so they don’t get into the habit of snacking. They should eat at the table and eat intentionally and slowly.”
April Hadley, health promoter with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, hosted an information booth at the Sports Summit.
“We want to make healthy choices the easy choices for children and their families by promoting whole foods and water, powering off screens and encouraging free play,” she says.
Ivan Ho and Vincent Ng, Public Health Nutritionists with the TBDHU, gave a presentation on sport nutrition on Saturday. Ho says that though the Canada Food Guide is an evidence-based, nutritional guide to follow, young athletes should have their diet personalized to incorporate their special needs, using the services of a registered dietitian.
Ng notes that based on the national average, there are changes that need to be made to the diets of young athletes.
“Most children are not having enough fruits and vegetables during the day,” he says. “Most are eating high amounts of processed foods.”
He says that nutritious foods are high in B vitamins and antioxidants, for example, and that processed foods are high in sugar.
Ng recommends that families not force their children to eat everything on their plate but rather encourage them to develop their own barometer to determine when they are full. He also urges families to not cater to the picky eater and to make only one type of meal for everyone.
“Make mealtimes a positive space,” he says.
Both Ho and Ng promote that youth should get their hydration through water as opposed to sugary power drinks and that their food intolerance and food allergies should be taken into consideration.
Thunder Bay’s Rick Lang, a two-time world curling champion, advocates for routine when it comes to healthy eating for young athletes.
“The biggest challenge is to make it part of everyday living,” he says of proper nutrition. “You don’t want to change (what you eat) when it comes to competition.”
Marc Laliberte, a presenter on cultural awareness in sport, reveals that in the mid-1800s, the First Nations people of the Plains were considered the tallest in the world.
“Traditional foods kept us healthy when we were subsisting on traditional foods, such as bison, wild rice and other game,” says Laliberte, who is also the president of the Aboriginal Wellness Sport Council of Ontario. “We try to teach our youth to eat a balanced and nutritious diet in their training and competition. We realize in some communities it’s almost impossible to get fresh produce and the cost of nutritious food is much higher in our remote communities.”