Every athlete needs fuel to grow, learn and perform. Food provides this fuel. Nutrition and hydration needs change depending on the activity, intensity, time available for recovery and individual preferences.
The basics for a solid nutrition plan to support good health, performance and injury prevention
Here are our top tips for fueling active kids and athletes:
CONSISTENT MEALS & SNACKS
Three meals a day
One to two or more snacks a day (depending on the athlete, sport and training level)
VARIETY OF FOODS FROM ALL FOOD GROUPS
Food groups: protein, fruit, vegetable, grains/starch, dairy, fat
At least three different food groups per meal
At least two different food groups per snack
EXCEPTION = during training or competition
ADEQUATE FLUID INTAKE
Drink with and between meals and snacks
Choose water first, consider adding sports drinks with high intensity activity lasting more than an hour.
POSITIVE/HEALTHY FOOD ATTITUDE
Food is here to fuel, improve performance and prevent/help heal from injury
Notice hunger, satiety and how different foods work with training and competition
Competitive and elite child and teen athletes are at greater risk for bone stress injuries due to their high activity levels. Making sure optimal nutrition is part of the training plan is key to keeping bones under constant pressure strong and healthy.
Who is at risk of weak bones?
Adolescence is an important time to lay the foundation for building strong bones.
Those at an increased risk of weak bones and bone injuries include athletes who:
are not meeting their daily calorie and nutrient needs for bone development, due to:
higher calorie needs related to frequency and duration of training and competition.
food allergy, intolerance or dislike of dairy products.
picky eating habits that eliminate green vegetables, seeds and other calcium rich foods listed above.
are female and participate in endurance or high-intensity sports with irregular menstrual cycles.
play indoor sports with limited exposure to the sun.
Athletes who are experiencing bone stress injuries may need even more calcium and vitamin D. Speak with your doctor and registered sports dietitian if you have concerns.
Most young athletes can get everything they need from food and beverage alone. However, in some cases, dietary supplements may be needed. Supplements are not regulated and may contain harmful substances for the young athlete. If you think your athlete needs to supplement, reach out to your sports medicine physician and sports dietitian for a plan to supplement safely.
Risks Associated with Consuming Energy Drinks
Energy drinks are not recommended for the pediatric population.
Energy drinks contain large amounts of caffeine, along with herbal blends (high doses of vitamins and amino acids) and we do not know how young pediatric bodies will respond to these products. There are concerns for safety regarding the contents and concentration of products in these drinks and they are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who regulates products to ensure safety. Because the production is not regulated, there are risks of contamination and impurities. Energy drinks often contain high concentration of questionable contents and have been reported to cause adverse effects such as stomach (gastrointestinal) issues, nausea, shaking, overstimulation (affecting sleep, training, performance), anxiety, irritability, insomnia, headaches, and even cardiac arrhythmias, seizures and death.
Fluids are equally important to the health and performance of a young athlete as is food. It’s important that the young athlete drink fluids throughout the day, not just at practice. The best fluids are water and milk but in some instances, a sports drink may be needed. Grab your water bottle and don’t wait to hydrate!
In most situations, water is the best choice for hydrating young athletes. Sports drinks are only recommended when participating in activities:
In very hot or humid environments.
With high intensity for longer than 60 minutes.
Sports camps, tournaments and double-headers.
When water isn’t enough, reach for a sports drink with a good mix of water, electrolytes and carbohydrates. For many young athletes, 30-60 grams of carbohydrates in an hour is all they need. You can find this information on any standard nutrition label. Otherwise, stick with water, start early and drink often.
Busy young athletes may find themselves lethargic, with bone stress injuries, with repeated or non-healing injuries, or unable to improve their skills and performance even though they are training more and training harder. This can be due to low energy availability, a condition where the athlete is not eating enough to meet his/her increased needs for sport, growth and everyday movement.
Often this is unintentional, but in some cases, like in the aesthetic sports, it may be intentional. If your young athlete is experiencing stress fractures, repeated injuries, non-healing injuries or growth disturbances, it’s important to reach out to your doctor, a sports medicine physician and/or sports dietitian to assess if your athlete is getting enough calories and nutrition. Even a slight increase in overall intake and nutrition can leave your athlete more energized, better able to recover, injury-free and performing his / her best!
A Note About Weight
Young athletes face pressure daily regarding body image whether it be from social media or other external social stressors. There are also certain sports in particular that place emphasis on a certain body type. Some emphasize a lean physique such as gymnastics, figure skating or ballet. Where others emphasize a more muscular physique such as football, powerlifting and basketball.
Many athletes in an attempt to “lose or gain” weight to fit the prototype of their particular sport participate in unsafe and unhealthy weight gain/loss practices such as fad diets or supplements which are not FDA approved. They are not aware of the possible adverse effects and consequences it may have on their health and even performance. Sudden weight gain or sudden weight loss is not recommended for the young athlete. Instead of focusing on weight, the young growing athlete should focus on overall health and a well-balanced diet.
It's important how medical providers, coaches and parents speak to young athletes about nutrition and weight. Sports medicine physicians and registered dietitians are trained in how to counsel children and parents on this topic. If at all hesitant, it could be useful to talk with an expert about how to work with your young athlete on healthy weight loss or weight gain before discussing with your child.
More From Our Team
Sign up to receive News for Young Athletes - our quarterly e-newsletter full of resources for parents.
Check out the latest resources for sports nutrition on our blog.