Nutrition for Young Athletes

Nutrition for Young Athletes

A high school football player knows he is underweight. Many of his friends have hit their growth spurts but he has not yet. He has been told by his coaches to try to gain at least 20 pounds. His parents push for him to eat ice cream, milkshakes, chips, and other high-fat foods. No matter what he does, he cannot seem to put on the weight that his coaches want and he desperately wants to perform at his best. On the contrary, a teenage dancer who is currently training at a ballet school full-time is told she is eight pounds too heavy. Her Body Mass Index (BMI) is already at the low end of normal but she needs to be lighter in order to be lifted in the air by her male counterparts. Her parents start reading online how to lose weight. They make her become vegetarian and remove all added sugars from her diet. She starts to feel extremely tired and fatigued, and is unable to concentrate in any of her school classes.

Young athletes are unique because they have an intense drive to perform at the highest level possible while meeting the expectations of coaches, parents and themselves. However, they are still growing and developing, and do not have mature body systems or energy utilization mechanisms. Some of the unique physiological considerations in adolescents include more porous bones putting these athletes at a higher risk of injury, lower cardiac stroke volume, higher pulse and respiration rates, higher oxygen consumption per kilogram of body weight, inefficient temperature regulation, and decreased anaerobic capacity due to decreased glycogen utilization. These physiological differences will affect adaptation to exercise training. Because adolescents grow and develop at different rates and are unpredictable, some athletes will adapt faster and more efficiently than others. Understanding these unique differences is essential to be able to coach and train athletes to their ability and level while not pushing them to perform beyond their genetic capacity. One final consideration relates to their psychological competency, which is still in development. Emotional and mental health is immature as adolescents are in the process of learning about themselves and how to handle different situations.

Diet plans for teen athletes should not have limited dietary intake but instead modified to ensure optimal timing of nutrients to meet the energy demand and nutrient requirements of their sport and position. There are three main areas that require attention and nutrition education for these adolescent athletes. They include energy, macronutrient balance, and hydration. Let’s explore each one in more detail.

There are Estimated Energy Requirement equations available to calculate caloric needs in adolescents. They use gender, height, weight, and physical activity levels to assess this need. The equations account for physical activity levels that are typical for this age group but they could be well below that of a competitive athlete. Additional calories may need to be added to accurately assess caloric requirements in these athletes. Females generally require approximately 1,700 to 2,800 calories per day and males may require 2,000 to 3,800 calories per day. This is a general range and athletes should be assessed individually taking into consideration their sport, energy demand, other activities of daily living, and body weight and body composition goals. Calorie counting should not be encouraged because that can lead to rigid eating patterns and a focus or obsession on numbers. Instead, athletes can be given sample meals and snacks to demonstrate how the calorie requirement to meet their needs. It will benefit the athlete to eat consistently throughout the day from a variety of foods with a balance of macronutrients at all meals and snacks to maintain energy stores to support performance in both training and competition.

If weight gain is necessary, then energy intake will need to increase. However the additional energy should come from a variety of foods and not just fat or junk foods. It is in the athlete’s best interest to increase complex carbs, whole grains, proteins, dairy, fruit and healthy fats to ensure adequate calories are being consumed to support weight gain. If weight needs to be monitored in order to stay within a certain weight class, such as for wrestlers, or to maintain an aesthetic appearance, then the diet should be carefully planned to ensure all macronutrient, vitamin and mineral needs are being met. Extreme diets or elimination of entire food groups, such as animal proteins, gluten or dairy, is not recommended unless medically necessary. Doing so can lead to unhealthy and disordered eating practices.

Macronutrient Balance
If the diet is imbalanced in any one macronutrient, then performance is going to suffer. Carbohydrate and fat are the two macronutrients that will support the energy production pathways. Carbohydrate is the nutrient designed to support high intensity, powerful, strength-type movements. In order to keep glycogen stores in the muscles full to support this energy demand, food sources of carbohydrate, including starches, grains, fruit and dairy, should be consumed consistently throughout the day at all meals and snacks.

Fat is the primary substrate to support energy demand for lower intensity, longer duration activities. Many foods contain natural sources of fat so it is not always necessary to include additional sources to meet an athlete’s fat and/or energy requirement. The healthiest sources of fat include nuts, nut butter, oil, avocado, hummus, and seeds. Other fats, including processed and animal fats, can be consumed but in moderation to support overall health.

Protein is the macronutrient needed for growth and repair. Adults have a certain protein requirement to enhance muscle protein synthesis and muscle recovery post-workout. However research is unclear on the protein requirement to support these mechanisms in adolescents. Adolescent athletes who are eating a normal and balanced diet will not need to go to extreme lengths to ensure their protein requirements are met. Consuming a variety of foods, including animal proteins, will allow athletes to meet their protein needs. However if athletes are limiting their dietary intake, either as a result of guidance of a coach or parent or from disordered eating patterns, or if they following a vegetarian diet, then they may not be consuming adequate protein. Dietary patterns and food choices should be reviewed with a nutrition professional.

Because adolescents have more water in their muscles and less surface area, they are more susceptible to water loss leading to dehydration, inefficient body temperature regulation, electrolyte disturbances, and heat-related illnesses. Many adolescents have difficulty drinking adequate fluids that do not contain calories. Only drinking when thirsty or at the time of their training or event will not ensure adequate hydration. Adolescents should be encouraged to drink water during and in-between classes at school and regularly at home. They should carry a water bottle with them to practice or games and drink from it often before thirst sets in. If plain water is not palatable, then flavored water can be consumed. During long or intense practices and games, especially in a hot and humid environment, a sports drink should be considered and encouraged. 

Additional Considerations
Coaches and trainers are the primary people dispelling nutrition information to adolescent athletes. There is a significant education gap among coaches and trainers on how to best address optimal nutrition and any concerns that may arise. There are plenty of opportunities for nutrition educators to reach out to coaches, trainers, parents and the athletes themselves to offer team trainings on how to support the unique nutrition requirements of the sport. This will ensure the athletes perform at their best, continue to optimize growth and development, and maintain their physical and mental health.

Dunford, M. (2006). Sports nutrition: A practice manual for professionals (4th ed.). Chicago, IL: American Dietetic Association.

About the Author
Stephanie is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) with a Masters of Science Degree in Exercise Fitness and Health Promotion. She has over 15 years of experience working with clients to improve their overall health and well-being, and has a passion for sharing her knowledge and empowering others to improve their nutrition and exercise behaviors. She has been teaching at American University in the School of Education, Teaching and Health since 2011 but has over 10 years of collegiate teaching experience both online and in the classroom.

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