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Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes

Submitted By: Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited By: Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Throughout professional sports the impact of nutrition on athletic performance is becoming more and more obvious.  Sports dietitians work at every level to create meal plans that keep athletes energized during competitions and help them recover quickly afterwards.1,2 Although children and adolescents do not usually train as intensely as professional athletes, nutrition plays an equally important role in their athletic performance and overall health.

Unfortunately, children and adolescents tend to have busy schedules that may not leave much time for a nutritious meal between activities.  On top of this, food preferences, social pressure, and the availability of energy-dense snacks might prevent your child or adolescent from selecting the most nutritious option. Luckily, there are a few things you can keep in mind when deciding how best to fuel your young athlete.

Calories

Children and adolescents’ calorie needs vary based on their age, gender, and physical activity level.  In general they need between 2000 and 3000 calories each day just to grow and stay healthy.  For example, a 16-year-old boy who plays hockey will need about 2500 calories to sustain his growth and an additional 940 calories per hour of hockey, bringing his needs close to 3500 calories per day!1

With calorie needs this high, you may not be surprised to learn that many young athletes do not actually meet their needs each day.  As a result, they may feel fatigued or be unable to reach their peak athletic performance.1,3 An inability to meet their energy needs also puts athletes at risk for long-term health problems.  Female athletes in particular may be at risk for the Female Athlete Triad, when unmet energy needs lead to hormonal changes that cause irregular menstruation and decreased bone density.4 A Registered Dietitian or Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics can calculate your child’s calorie needs and provide suggestions to help make sure he or she is eating enough.

Carbohydrates

While “carbohydrates” typically conjure an image of bread, pasta, and potatoes, foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and dairy products are also good sources of carbs.  Many young athletes do not eat enough carbohydrates to properly fuel their workout, which can lead to fatigue and the use of protein for energy during exercise.3 Athletes’ needs vary depending on the intensity of their workout, but in general they need at least 55% of their calories to come from carbs.3,4 A sports dietitian can give your child a specific recommendation based on his or her activity level.

Protein

Protein is crucial for maintaining and building muscle mass.  Most athletes are able to meet their protein needs through whole foods despite the fact that athletes need more protein than sedentary people.4 If an athlete is not eating enough calories, though, their body will use protein for energy during exercise instead of using it to repair muscles.1 Eating protein as soon as possible after exercise will enhance muscle recovery, helping your child further improve athletic performance.5 Yet another reason why it is crucial to make sure a young athlete is getting enough calories!

As with carbohydrates, athletes’ protein needs will vary depending on the intensity of their training.  A registered dietitian can give you a specific recommendation, but in general a young athlete should be getting about 1.4 g of protein per kilogram of body weight each day.3

Fat

Dietary fat provides calories for young athletes in addition to keeping their cells working properly.  Certain vitamins (A, D, E, and K) also require fat to be absorbed during digestion.  It’s recommended that between 20-30% of a young athlete’s calories come from fat.  Unsaturated fat from sources such as olive oil, avocadoes, salmon, and nuts should be emphasized over saturated fat from fatty cuts of meat, cheese, pizza, and desserts.3 Young athletes should also try to avoid trans fat from processed foods and pastries, as this has been shown to both raise “bad” LDL cholesterol and lower “good” HDL cholesterol levels.

Supplements

Your child may be tempted to try a sports supplement based on a recommendation from a friend or a promotion by a professional athlete, but in general young athletes do not need any supplements.  If an athlete’s calorie needs are met with a balanced diet, his or her protein needs are likely also met.  One particularly popular protein supplement, creatine, is not recommended for anyone below the age of 18 due to its potential side effects.4 Additionally, most children and adolescents don’t need to rehydrate with a sports drink after exercise.  Sports drinks are only beneficial during an extended period of intense exercise because the sugar in them helps maintain the athlete’s blood sugar levels.  Otherwise, sports drinks tend to provide empty calories that can lead to weight gain if they are consumed too often.5 Instead, try a glass of chocolate milk after exercise for a good source of protein, carbs, and calcium.

A well planned, balanced diet is vital for helping a young athlete meet his or her performance goals and grow into a strong, healthy adult!  Offering a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is a great way to start encouraging your athlete to make nutritious choices.  If you’re concerned about the foods your child is eating, meet with a registered dietitian to learn specific recommendations and see they compare to your child’s current diet.

References:

  1.  Cotugna N, Vickery CE, McBee S. Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes. J Sch Nurs. 2005;21(6):323-328. doi:10.1177/10598405050210060401.
  2.  Heil N. The Secret Food of Athletes: Inside the Olympic Training Center’s Nutrition Lab. Outside Online. http://www.outsideonline.com/1914301/secret-food-athletes-inside-olympic-training-centers-nutrition-lab. Published March 7, 2013. Accessed October 10, 2016.
  3.  Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes: Vital to Victory. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/tdmarch2008pg44.shtml. Accessed October 10, 2016.
  4.  Nemet D, Eliakim A. Pediatric sports nutrition: an update. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2009;12(3):304-309. doi:10.1097/MCO.0b013e32832a215b.
  5.  Fitness C on N and the C on SM and. Sports Drinks and Energy Drinks for Children and Adolescents: Are They Appropriate? Pediatrics. 2011;127(6):1182-1189. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-0965.

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