Nutrition and Young Athletes



My 12-year-old niece competes in Irish Dancing. At a recent competition, I noticed that most of the adolescent competitors sweated a lot, appeared exhausted and lacked more and more energy as the competition wore on. In response, parents and coaches gave them whatever food and drink that they had on hand to energize them again. This included sports drinks, soda, candy bars, water and other snacks. After seeing this, I decided to educate myself about nutrition requirements and recommendations for adolescent athletes and I wanted to share with you what I learned. For this blog, I worked with Linda Heller, MS, RD, CSP, CLE, Clinical Nutrition Manager of Clinical Nutrition Services at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to find appropriate references for research and practical applications for what I found out. I will cover the basic areas of protein, carbs, “good fats” and hydration.

Why Protein during Exercise is Important for Young Athletes

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  • Protein helps repair and rebuild muscles after exercise. Complete proteins such as meats, fish, dairy and eggs are made up of the same amino acids that make up the muscles. After your child eats protein, their body breaks it down into amino acids and sends these to the muscles as needed for rebuilding and repairing.
  • Protein requirements during exercise are higher during childhood and adolescence due to their growing bodies. Research varies, but in general, your child should eat half to two thirds of a gram per pound (of body weight) of protein daily, especially if they are competitors.
  • Here is a list of common sources of protein and the approximate protein contents for your reference.

Why Carbs Before and After Exercise are Important for Young Athletes

Compared to adults, children and adolescents use more fat than carbohydrates during prolonged exercise, but carbs, as they are commonly called, are still an important energy source.

  • Here are some guidelines for carbohydrate intake before and after exercise: Your child’s carbohydrate needs are based on body weight and intensity of activity.
  • 2 ¼ to 3 ½ grams of carbohydrate per pound for moderate or heavy training.
  • 3 ½ to 4 grams of carbohydrate per pound in 24 to 48 hours before a competition.
  • ¾ gram of carbohydrate per pound during the two to three hours after a competition for your child or adolescent’s “refueling” needs.
  • Here is a list of carbohydrate counts for breads, grains, fruits and vegetables, from the USDA National Nutrient Database.

Why “Good” Fats are Good for Young Athletes

While carbohydrates are often highlighted as the best body fuel for sports, there is some research suggesting that fat may be the preferred fuel for children. The guidelines below are based on the average intake of 2,200 calories per day. This is generally recommended for a normal adolescent. An athlete may need to consume at least twice this number of calories or more depending on the level of exercise.

  • While a low-fat diet can be followed, it is important that your young athlete eat an average of about 25 percent of their calories from fat.
  • Focus on eating healthy fats from plant and fish sources such as avocados or nuts, cold-water fish rich in Omega-3 oils such as Salmon, trout, sardines, and tuna and olive oil. Healthy fats from these sources are converted to energy more easily.
  • Limit the amounts of fried and processed foods which can be loaded with saturated and trans fats. They can zap your young athlete’s energy and slow them down when they compete.

Hydration and Young Athletes

Proper hydration before, during and after competition is one of the most important factors in being a successful competitor for both children and adolescents. It is the final piece to this adolescent athlete nutrition puzzle. In fact, I think it is so important that I devoted an entire blog post just to this subject.

If you have a child or adolescent competitor in your family, or know anyone who does, pass this blog to them. I hope it will help in making them more aware, healthier and give them more of a competitive edge through improvement of their nutrition for their future competitions.