What are the nutrition needs for your young athlete?
Do you have a child or teen in sport?
Childhood and adolescence are critical periods for development and physical growth, and it’s important that young athletes eat enough - and enough of the right stuff - to support this development as well as to fuel their sport. This can be really challenging when they are combining being at school along with multiple training sessions and competitions (e.g. swimming, football, rugby).
A young athlete needs:
- Enough calories to support growth and the extra demands of their sport (achieved by frequent meals and snacks).
- Enough carbohydrates to fuel their sport and to ensure recovery in between sessions.
- Enough protein for growth, repairing and building tissues. Children and adolescents have increased protein requirements due to the additional protein required for the growth of new tissues. Protein intake should be spread throughout the day.
- A varied diet to get all the essential vitamins and minerals that they need.
If children don’t get enough of what they need, the health implications can include delayed maturation, stunted growth, poor bone health and future bone health due to failure to lay down tissue as well as increased risk of injury.
How would you know if your child or teen is eating enough?
It is difficult to know the exact calorie requirements for young people, but we do know that young athletes will need more than the average young person. The principles for a good diet would be the same for any child (three meals plus two snacks, or more depending on activity levels) and no more than three to four hours without food.
But, if your child or young person regularly takes part in sports then you will need to start thinking about what extra nutrition they may need once they hit the prepubertal stages (around ages nine, 10 and 11). This is because growth starts to increase and when coupled with regular sports participation can mean that their calorie needs can be greatly increased.
A good way to meet the extra energy demands is through regular snacking, in addition to main meals. It’s a good idea to get your child or teen into the habit of packing nutritious snacks in their school bag and in their training bag every single day. Just be sure to ensure the food is stored safely (e.g. a cooler bag).
Some convenient snacks might include:
- wholegrain crackers with cheese
- wholegrain muffins
- high protein yoghurt and muesli bar
- veggies and hummus
- banana sandwich
- trail mix
More substantial snacks might include:
- tuna bagel
- boiled eggs with wholegrain crackers
- peanut butter and banana sandwich
- yoghurt with fruit and muesli bar
- smoothie made from milk, fruit and nut butter
Don’t forget fluid
Younger children have a poorer sense of thirst and reduced sweating capabilities compared to adults so it’s easier for them to overheat. Children and teens are also less likely to want to drink plain water so you could add some diluted juice to water to ensure that they drink.
Milk makes a perfect post-training drink due to its quality nutritional profile. Milk is high in water and contains carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes and vitamins and minerals making it great for hydration and recovery.
How can a nutritionist support young people in sport?
Some young people will be training a few times per week, whereas some young athletes train multiple times a day. Therefore, nutrition needs are very individual.
Seeking nutrition guidance can help a young person to understand how to eat to support their training, recovery and health in general, ultimately helping them to reduce the risk of injury, support growth and development, whilst maximising their sporting performance.