Fueling for Young Athletes
Fueling for Young Athletes

Fueling for Young Athletes

As athletes, basic nutrition is how we sustain our daily lives and exert energy to achieve performance goals and recovery. We need adequate daily calories, macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to support overall health. Essentially, nutrition is a house we build throughout our lives and the protective walls are the foods we eat to support our growth and to sustain life.

Young athletes need these same foundational nutrition tools for health and performance. However, basic nutrition is even more important for young athletes because they are still growing and developing. Daily nutrition supports overall health, metabolism, brain health, immunity, bone growth and so much more!

General Recommendations

The days of the classic “food pyramid” are no more! Instead, health and food agencies are opting for plate-based visualizations for meals. Still, knowing what to feed your active kids can be confusing. Many of the guidelines that exist may underestimate the nutritional needs of very active children or adolescents who are in training for a particular sport.

Energy requirements vary based on age, gender, weight, height, and activity level. For example, an active 12-year-old female who is 59 inches tall, weighs 89 lbs and exercises an equivalent of 3 to 6 miles of walking per day may require as much as 2,400 calories to support growth, development and overall activity (Mahan & Raymond, 2017). But unless you are meticulously tracking food intake, it’s difficult to visualize how much food is required to achieve this calorie count.

Figure 1. Hand Serving Sizes

Visualization tools are one simple way to understand what is “enough” for active adolescents. For example, the hand can act as a good measurement of how much of a certain food your child should aim for at meal times (Figure 1). A serving of protein is about the size of a flattened palm, a fist is a serving of vegetables, a cupped hand is a serving of carbs and one thumb is a serving of fats. This may be a helpful method to engage your kids in understanding what’s a good general guideline. But it is important to remember that all adolescents are different, and general recommendations may need to be increased or decreased depending on the child, their activity level and preferences. For more specific recommendations, refer to Table 1.

Table 1. Recommended Number of Food Servings for Active* Adolescents Ages 13-16 Years

Grains & Whole Grains (oz-eg/day)

Vegetables (cups/day)

Fruit (cups/day)

Dairy (cups/day)

Seafood (oz/week)

Meat, poultry, eggs (oz/week)

Nuts, seeds, soy products (oz/week)

Oils (g/day)

Males

13 Years

13.5

3.5

2

3

10

31

5

34

16 Years

14

4

2.5

3

11

34

5

51

Females

13 Years

10.5

3

2

3

9

29

4

29

16 Years

12

3

2

3

10

31

5

31

Adapted from Krause’s Food and Nutrition Care Process, 14th Ed., 2017

*Active equates to physical activity equivalent to walking more than 3 miles/day at 3-4 miles/hour, in addition to the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life

Oz-eq, one-ounce equivalent: 1 slice of bread, 1 ounce uncooked pasta or rice, ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, cereal; 1 tortilla (6” diameter); 1 pancake (5” diameter); 1 cup cereal

About half of grains consumed should be whole grains.

Recovery nutrition

After training, practice or competition, your athlete needs to refuel! When we exercise, we burn through stored carbohydrates in the body and tear muscle fibers. In order to recover, we need to consume carbs and protein. Recovery meals or snacks are easy ways to support nutrient replenishment.

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Recovery meals should be wholesome, well-balanced meals eaten within 2 to3 hours after exercise. They should include carbs, high-quality protein, fat and colorful vegetables. This might look like a type of meat served along with a hearty serving of brown rice and asparagus roasted in olive oil and salt.


If you don’t plan on serving a meal within 3 hours after your child’s exercise (e.g. they may be staying late to participate in another activity), pack them a few recovery snacks. Snacks should be high in protein, carbs and fluids. I recommend peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pretzel sticks, string cheese, yogurt with fruit and granola, protein/granola bars, beef jerky, hard-boiled eggs and low-fat chocolate milk. For hydration, I suggest plain water, Gnarly Hydrate, juices or other fluids.

How to encourage healthy eating on training and rest days

Keep it simple when it comes to fueling your young athlete. Most kids know that eating a healthy diet is an important part of growth. Slowly introducing a few healthy options at dinnertime and incorporating more variety into their day may be the easiest solution. Home-cooked meals give you the opportunity to experiment with new foods, diversify ingredients and cook with healthy fats and spices. If homemade meals aren’t a realistic option for you, don’t sweat it! You can still inspire your child to select new and unique foods when you go out to eat, too. Choose different restaurants and opt for new dishes rather than relying on the usual fare.

If you are concerned your child isn’t eating enough vegetables, opt for a few simple additions to their day. Have colorful snacks like carrots, red bell peppers, blueberries or grapes on hand for after-school snacks or include them in their lunches or gym bags. You can also incorporate a few kinds of vegetables at dinner, including brightly-colored veggies, and diversify when you can.


If you have a picky eater who refuses to expand beyond a small number of vegetable options, you may consider introducing some supplements into the diet. A basic multivitamin will ensure adequate delivery of recommended micronutrients, and many tablets come in more “kid-friendly” forms, such as chewables and drinks. Additionally, you might consider including a greens powder, such as Gnarly Greens, into a smoothie or other fluid.

Photo: Felipe Tapia Nordenflych

Regardless of whether your child is training or resting today, eating consistent and health-promoting foods will ensure growth, development and proper recovery from sport.

What about vegan and vegetarian diets?

Vegetarian eating practices in adolescents can support active lifestyles. If a child does not grow up eating vegetarian, they may adopt this lifestyle because of animal welfare concerns, environmental benefits or health reasons. It is certainly possible to consume all of the necessary nutrients through a vegetarian diet as long as the diet is well-planned and includes legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Protein quantity and quality is important for adolescent vegetarians. Protein quality refers to the digestibility and content of essential amino acids in a food. Protein quantity may need to be increased by 25% to meet quality needs. Vegetarian protein can be sourced from a variety of plant-based foods depending on which foods your child has chosen to omit from the diet. A lacto-ovo vegetarian still consumes dairy and eggs, which are excellent sources of high-quality protein. A vegan diet (i.e., no consumption of animal products, including eggs and dairy) may require more careful planning to ensure the consumption of “complementary” proteins. Complementary proteins are made when two or more incomplete protein foods are combined with complementary protein sources to create a complete protein.

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Complementary Proteins

  • Hummus (chickpeas blended with sesame seed tahini)
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Tofu with rice
  • Lentils and quinoa
  • Black beans topped with pepitas
  • Lentil pasta sauce served over pasta

Finally, micronutrient supplementation is an important consideration for vegan and vegetarian athletes. Plant-based diets are often lacking in adequate calcium, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3’s. Encouraging a varied diet is a great way to ensure intake of these nutrients, but you may also consider supplements with recommended daily amounts of calcium, iron, vitamin B12, omega-3’s and vitamin D.

Restrictive patterns of eating: what to do

At some point in their lives, kids will encounter an alternative approach to eating, diet and body image. Depending on their exposures at school, practice or competition, they may begin to restrict food for the purpose of maintaining thinness or enhancing performance. If you suspect your child is beginning to exhibit signs of restriction or has a negative relationship to food, approach them and ask if you can talk about it. They may not share their struggles right away, but offering to listen without judgement will help them feel supported and safe to talk about it. If appropriate, you may also share your experiences. Having an open discussion leads to communication and education, which is an important step for seeking treatment.


For more serious cases and suspected eating disorders, visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org for more assistance and guidance on next steps.

Key Takeaways:

  • Young athletes need nutrition to support growth, development and training adaptations.
  • The hand is a good visualization tool to simplify portion sizes recommended for children.
  • Recovery meals and snacks consumed within 3 hours after training will help refuel the body with carbohydrates, protein and fluids.
  • Diversifying weeknight meals and snacks is a simple way to boost micronutrients in the diet.
  • Vegetarian eating practices will require more deliberate planning, especially when it comes to protein intake. Combining different plant-based proteins will create a “complete” protein.
  • Disordered eating is common among young athletes. If you suspect your child is struggling, ask them if they are OK and offer to listen.

References

Mahan, K. L. & Raymond, J. L. (2017). Krause’s food & nutrition care process, 14th edition. Elsevier.

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