Sports Nutrition Guidelines for the Young Athlete

Eating well isn’t just important for proper development in the childhood and teenage years, it’s also essential for performance and success in sports. While it’s important for your child to eat a variety of healthful foods, ensuring that your child eats enough food is sometimes overlooked. After all, food is fuel— the food that your child eats literally fuels their athletic performance. Body size, muscle mass, metabolism, gender, and physical activity all influence how much energy an athlete needs and how much food they need to consume.

Nutrition Recommendations

The following recommendations can be used for all children ages 8 and up. When your child reaches puberty, it becomes easier to develop and gain muscle and even more important to consume enough calories to prevent Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, or RED-S.

  • Eat regular meals and snacks. Your child may need to eat up to three meals and three snacks a day. Avoid skipping meals or eating only a little at a meal.
  • Continue to eat a variety of healthful foods. This includes carbohydrates and healthy fats (such as avocados, nuts, and olive oil). Don’t sacrifice quantity for quality.
  • Protein timing can make a difference. Eat protein at all meals and snacks rather than eating most of it in the evening to promote muscle synthesis and repair.
  • Eat a snack after working out that includes a moderate amount of protein and carbohydrates to encourage muscle synthesis.

For the teen athlete who is exercising for longer than two hours at a time, here’s a general rule of thumb for estimating daily calorie requirements:

  • Girls: 20 to 23 calories per pound of body weight
  • Boys: 20 to 26 calories per pound of body weight

Gaining Weight Safely

Most athletes want to gain more muscle mass, not just weight. Simply increasing energy intake above their needs, even if they are eating more protein, will result in increased fat mass, which may not be beneficial for sport performance or long-term health. Hormones also play an important role in weight gain, especially testosterone. If your child has not yet reached puberty as a male, it will be harder to gain muscle.

Eating Too Little

Most teen athletes and their coaches are more concerned about the performance dangers of eating too much rather than too little. There may be concerns about gaining weight and losing speed, flexibility, or agility. However, it’s important to note that among competitive athletes, not eating enough is likely a more common problem affecting performance. This is called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), and is especially common in sports where an emphasis is placed on body composition, such as wrestling, gymnastics, running, dance, swimming, etc.

When an athlete increases their physical activity without increasing the amount of energy (calories) they are taking in, or decreases their energy intake without decreasing their physical activity, they are at risk of RED-S. There are many consequences to RED-S, including increased injury risk, decreased endurance performance, and decreased benefit from practice and training. There can also be long term consequences on bone health, hormones, and growth and development.

The most important thing to remember is to make sure your child eats regular meals and snacks, eats when hungry, and eats more when they are more active, no matter the sport they play or their age or gender.

©2023 Wasatch Pediatrics