March 25th, 2011
08:48 AM ET

Should I give protein shakes to my 8-year-old daughter?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Asked by Michelle, Kentucky

My 8-year-old daughter is about to begin the "Girls on the Run" program (a program where they train girls between third and eighth grade to run a 5K,) at her school. She would like me to make her the same protein shake after practices that I have myself after my workouts. (I make an 8-oz smoothie of skim milk, fat free vanilla yogurt and vanilla flavored natural whey protein powder. I do a combo of yoga, pilates and strength training.) I am not sure if this is something she needs or should have, nutritionally. Any advice or alternatives for her after her practices? She is convinced she needs something more than water because she does experience muscle cramps and has had shin splints before.
Expert answer

Hi Michelle,

I think it's terrific that your daughter is not only exercising regularly, but also thinking about good nutrition and how to fuel her body at such a young age. Without knowing more about her (height, weight) or the workouts (duration, intensity), I will do my best to give you a few tips. If her runs last longer than one hour, she would probably benefit from some type of sports drink containing 6%-8% carbohydrates and electrolytes during the run, particularly if she experiences muscle cramps. During runs less than 60 minutes, water is fine.

After a longer workout (over one hour), a combination of carbohydrates and protein in a 4:1 ratio is recommended for recovery. Your smoothie sounds like it has too much protein to meet this recommendation so I would take out the whey protein and add in half a banana for your daughter (You may want to cut back on the protein and increase carbs slightly too in your post-workout shake as well since you are getting protein from the milk, the yogurt and the whey protein powder.) The milk and yogurt are good sources of calcium, which is important for bone health, especially in young athletes who may be at higher risk of overuse injuries, and good quality protein for muscle building and recovery. Other good post-workout snacks include peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-grain bread, string cheese and an apple or orange, or yogurt with berries.

If it has been more than 3-4 hours since she has eaten, make sure that she gets a snack 30-45 minutes before her run. Fruit or whole grain cereal bars are easy portable choices.

As a young athlete, it is also important that she get adequate amounts of dietary iron and B vitamins. Fortified cereals and grains, lean red meat, and spinach are good foods to include on a regular basis. And make sure she eats plenty of vitamin C-rich foods too (citrus, strawberries, green and red peppers) to ensure adequate iron absorption.

Finally, make sure that she drinks plenty of water, as younger athletes are at higher risk of dehydration and do not instinctively rehydrate as well as adults. Roberta Anding MS, RD, CSSD, CDE, LD who is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and director of Sports Nutrition at Texas Children's Hospital, adds the following suggestions:

Teach her to check the color of her urine in the morning when she gets up. If it looks like apple juice, then she is likely dehydrated and this may be the source of her cramps. If her urine looks like lemonade in morning, then she probably is doing fine with her hydration. Fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt contain 80%-90% water -  think of them as time-released fluid. Also, since she is at school all day, have her "give you eight" which means eight big gulps of water every time she passes the water fountain.

Cramping is caused by dehydration and loss of sodium in sweat. So if her hydration is fine, then consider having a salty snack before her run, such as a handful of pretzels about 30-45 minutes before the run.

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