Sports, Nutrition, and PKU

lex_fathersdayFather’s Day is just around the corner. We know that a lot of Dads like to spend time on Father’s Day playing sports with the kids – tossing a baseball, shooting some hoops, throwing a football, or even getting down and dirty in an obstacle race.

When Dad, daughter, or son has PKU, it’s a good idea to plan ahead to make sure everyone gets the nutrition they need to play hard and have fun. “Kids with PKU don’t have any extra needs beyond other kids — their needs just have to be met in a different way,” says Abby Hall, RD CD, a dietitian at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, IN. ”

Nutrition plays a huge role in sports performance according to Hall  When athletes are well-nourished, they perform better, have better focus, and reduce their risk of injury. Some of Abby’s thoughts appear below.

To fuel their best games, PKU athletes young and old need three nutrients: protein equivalents (PE), fluids, and carbohydrates.

Hall emphasizes fluids and PE when she talks with her patients about fueling for sports “The two biggest things I talk about are hydration and making sure they’re getting their formula before or after their exercise – preferably after,” Hall said. “It’s not about giving them a lot of extra protein, but protein at the right time.”

During exercise, athlete’s muscles are breaking down. After exercise, muscles rebuild and get stronger, according to Hall… if they have the protein to build new muscle tissue. If an athletes with PKU don’t have that protein available, their muscles won’t repair themselves as well, and they won’t get as strong as quickly as they would with good nutrition.

Most of your body’s energy for sports comes from carbohydrates. Your body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose, which your body may use immediately for energy, store as fat, or store in your muscles as glycogen.


During fast, short spurts of activity, like running up and down a basketball court, your body uses glycogen from your muscles to power your activity.

When you’re doing endurance sports, like running a marathon, your body converts fat into energy so that you save your muscle glycogen for fast moves.

Father running with baby carriage

The glycogen in your muscles comes from food you’ve eaten 24-48 hours before you start playing – so don’t try to lose weight just before a big game. And eat a carbohydrate-heavy snack or drink within two hours of exercise to restore your muscle glycogen.

pablo (18)Protein equivalents are vital for muscle and bone health. PKUers who are increasing their muscle mass or losing weight may need to increase the amount of formula they take each day– after consulting with their dietitian

That said, there’s no evidence that taking additional amino acids beyond what your body needs will increase muscle mass, or help you lose weight – so don’t try to second-guess your dietitian! If you or your child with PKU are increasing your protein equivalent dose, make sure you increase your fluids as well to prevent dehydration as well as kidney and liver damage.

RestoreTangerine_SoccerKids_origEven if you’re not increasing your formula dose, fluids are important for every athlete. If you’re exercising for up to 60 minutes, water is the best drink. For hard play lasting more than 60 minutes or taking place during hot, humid weather, people with PKU should find drinks with sodium and electrolytes, aka sports drinks. Some PKU formulas like Restore and Restore Lite provide the same electrolytes as sports drinks with the added bonus of protein equivalent for muscle health.

The most important part of planning for sports with PKU is talking with your dietitian. “The best thing a family can do is really be specific with their team about what their goals are,” said Hall, especially if the athlete is involved in a travel team or intensive training. When athletes don’t eat enough food to support their activities – sometimes because there aren’t many good options at an away game — they can become calorie-deficient, raising their Phe levels. “Sometime’s it’s not about the protein. It’s about the calories if they’re burning a lot,” Hall said. Hall suggests veggie chips, fruit, or fruit leather for a quick calorie boost.

We hope you enjoy playing with your kids – or Dad! – not just on Father’s Day, but every day. Or maybe you can take time to remember good times you spent with father figures who have passed. Spending time with your family is one of the best ways we know to feel balanced, and feel better – which is our goal for everyone, every day.





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