Oct 12, 2023 /
By Melodyann Jones, MDA, RDN / Southpoint
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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