The Quick Guide to Fueling Young Athletes

Consistent good nutrition can support a child or teen’s growth, development and immune system, and can also help them be a stronger athlete and a more attentive student. If this is the case, why is the sports environment filled with fast food? Why are athletes choosing supplements to help them perform better when they’re choosing junk food for meals and snacks?

We’ve all been to a youth sports game or tournament where they’re serving hot dogs, candy and soda and the half-time snack for the young athletes is a bottle of sports drink and some sort of fast food or prepackaged snack. A busy sports schedule can result in reliance on fast food or pre-packaged snacks and meals, which can be convenient, but don’t support your athlete in feeling good and performing well.

If I were to make it really simple, I would tell kids to do these things to have the best “athlete’s diet”:

  1. Don’t skip meals. This means eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, every day.
  2. Drink water throughout the day – carry around a water bottle and fill it up throughout the day. Drink more the day before a competition/game/race.
  3. Eat snacks! Eating a snack with protein after exercise can help promote muscle repair and growth.

Source: Teen Being & Choices Magazine

How many calories does a young athlete need?

This chart can help you determine how many calories your young athlete needs based on their age and physical activity levels. You can see the difference between a sedentary and active been might just be 400-600 calories, the equivalent to a few extra snacks throughout the day (not a free pass to eat whatever they want).

You may feel as if your child is ALWAYS hungry – they may need to add more snacks throughout the day, or even an extra meal during the day. Again, this all depends on how active they are and if they’re having a growth spurt.

What foods should young athletes focus on?

A common mistake among young athletes make is thinking they can eat TONS of protein to build muscle, but they’re often not meeting their calorie needs. Young athletes need to focus on eating enough calories in addition to exercising (especially strength training) to build muscle.

An easy way to talk about good nutrition to a young athlete is to talk about food being fuel for their activities. Kids usually know that junk food doesn’t make them feel good, so help them make the connection that when they eat healthy foods, they feel good!

Of course, if they have the choice to eat junk food at home, they may choose cookies, candy and chips over fresh fruit and vegetables because it’s convenient (and tastes good). Make the healthy options convenient by cutting up extra fresh fruit and vegetables and making the junk food unavailable in the home.

Carbohydrates are our muscles’ main fuel source, so they should make up the majority of the diet (55-75% of total calories coming from carbohydrates). Carbohydrate foods include: whole grain bread, pasta, and cereal, grains such as oatmeal and rice, vegetables and fruit. Aim to make half of all grains whole grains for added fiber and nutrients (brown rice vs. white rice, whole grain bread and rolls vs. white bread).

Protein helps with muscle repair and growth, but it doesn’t need to be the biggest focus. Although athletes need more protein on their plates, they can meet their needs by including protein at each meal and snack. Good sources of protein include meat, poultry, Greek yogurt, beans, nuts, seeds, milk and eggs.

Protein 8 years old: 4 oz

9-13 years old: 5 oz

14-18 years old: 5 oz (Female)

6.5 oz (Male)

One-ounce equivalent: 1 oz. meat, poultry, fish, ¼ cup beans, 1 Tbsp nut butter, 1 egg, ½ oz nuts/seeds

Healthy fats should be part of your athletes diet – we’re talking about nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados. Avoid trans fats in fried foods (menu items that say “crispy” or “crunchy”) and pre-packaged baked goods and snack foods.

Is breakfast really that important?

Children and adolescents need to be eating breakfast every day, especially if they’re involved in sports. Skipping breakfast has been attributed to more weight gain, and eating breakfast can help kids have more energy and pay attention more during the school day. We’re not talking about a bowl of sugary cereal here – even if breakfast is small and on-the-go, try to choose foods from more than one food group. Good examples include:

  • Granola bar and a banana
  • Hard boiled egg and an apple
  • Greek yogurt with granola and blueberries
  • Dry cereal and nuts
  • Apple with peanut butter and raisins
  • Egg sandwich with 2 eggs and cheese
  • Fruit smoothie

Should young athletes drink sports drinks?

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports sports drinks contain extra calories and sugar that children don’t necessarily need and that for children participating in normal exercise activities, plain water should be the drink of choice. Children and adolescents should really never be drinking energy drinks, and should only drink sports drinks during prolonged, vigorous physical activity (similar to adult recommendations).

Children are more susceptible to becoming dehydrated because they sweat less than teens and adults, so young athletes should aim to consume 4-8 oz. (several large gulps) of water every 15-20 minutes of physical activity. They may need even more if they’re sweating a lot or wearing protective equipment.

What about sports supplements?

The supplement industry loves to make things exciting and make promises about enhancing performance, helping you lean out, make strength gains or give you energy with little scientific evidence to back up these claims.

Young athletes, especially high school students, can get caught up in these exciting messages pushing protein supplements to enhance muscle growth and athletic performance. In reality, there is no magic pill – all children and adolescents can meet their protein needs through real food sources and there are many real food sources of the same supplements they’re spending so much money on.

You can’t take supplements to replace hard work or good nutrition.

You (or your young athlete) might enjoy:

Kids Eat Right || 6 Healthy Ways to Manage Weight for Sports || 8 Gameday Nutrition Tips

Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN || Eat Like a Champion

***This book was a great resource in writing this article!

Mark Bittman @ The New York Times || Getting Your Kids to Eat (Or At Least Try) Everything 

Sally Kuzemchak @ Teen Being || Are You Being Snacked to Death?