Practical Nutrition Strategies for Youth Athletes

Most parents and families understand how critical a nutrient-rich, balanced diet is for optimal health and athletic performance. If you’re raising an adolescent or teen athlete performing at a high-level, you must focus greater attention to their fueling needs to ward off fatigue, prevent nutrient deficiencies, and decrease risk of injury.

Support your youth athlete using these strategies:

There is no “special diet plan” to assist in achieving optimal athletic performance. Consumption of the fundamentals (three high-quality balanced meals with 2-3 snacks between) on a consistent basis leads to better sports performance, games won, strength increases, and fewer injuries. A great resource to build a plate for optimal performance can be viewed here .

The greater intensity the sport, duration and training volume, the greater requirement of carbohydrates and calories to sufficiently support energy levels. This pertains to sports like ice hockey, field hockey, basketball, swimming, soccer and long-distance running.

You must also make a conscious effort to consume snacks containing protein and carbohydrates between meals. Fruit with string cheese is a great snack to support energy levels and maintain fueling between meals! For snack ideas to fuel your teen athlete, be sure to check out this article from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Water is vital to maintain peak performance during exercise. A good rule of thumb is to encourage consumption of 1 oz. of water per pound of body weight. It is worthwhile to invest in a good water bottle for your teen athlete to carry and keep on hand to foster good habits and prevent dehydration. Check out this article from USA Triathlon for fluid needs before, during and after exercise.

Eating breakfast is non-negotiable. Teens need adequate nutrition to support proper growth and development. Research has indicated nutrients and calories missed at breakfast by teens is unlikely made up for later in the day. This can result in insufficient intake which can hinder sports performance and prevent proper maturation. Great grab-and-go meals include a hard boiled-egg and fruit, string cheese and banana, yogurt parfait and whole-grain granola, berries and oatmeal.

A bedtime snack containing 15-20 grams of protein and approximately 30 grams of carbohydrates will support restful sleep and help build lean muscle tissue during the night. Athletes training intensely especially need bedtime protein to improve recovery and training adaptations (Trommelen & VanLoon, 2016). Cottage cheese, milk, and yogurt are rich in casein, a slow digesting protein. Pair an 8 oz. serving of cottage cheese with sliced bananas, which are a rich source of magnesium helping to relax the muscles in your body as well as lower brain temperature to regulate hormones.

Caffeine has no place in an adolescent’s diet. A 2018 report stated that greater than 40% of American teens surveyed had consumed an energy drink within the past three months. Several emergency visits have occurred due to energy drink consumption among teens between the ages of 12-17. The American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that energy drinks are “not appropriate for children and adolescents, and should never be consumed.” Monster and Gatorade do not provide the same hydration benefits so be weary of advertisements that contribute to this confusion. Caffeine can negatively impact sleep, anxiety levels and also impair appetite.

Load up on fruits and vegetables between meals! The more colorful your athlete’s plate, the better their gut health and immune function will be. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants and contain quality nutrients needed for optimal growth and development.

Calcium is critical for proper bone growth, development and overall health. However, calcium can only reach its full bone-growth potential in the presence of adequate vitamin D. Calcium and vitamin D work together. How? Vitamin D helps absorb calcium. Research has proven that American girls do not get adequate calcium in their diet after age 11. This deficiency increases risk of injuries like stress fractures. Recommendations for calcium and vitamin D vary. A great way to attain adequate calcium and vitamin D is to consume dairy productsOatmeal bowl topped with fruit and nut butter such as cheese, yogurt, milk and fortified beverages. A yogurt parfait with mixed berries is a great pre-exercise snack to fuel performance and also serves as a great breakfast to start the day!

Ramp up the color game! No, I am not talking about your outfit; I am talking about your plate. Be sure to fill your plate with many colorful fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that are essential for health and injury prevention. Citrus fruits, red and yellow bell peppers, dark leafy greens, broccoli, berries and tomatoes offer vitamin C. Vitamin C offers anti-inflammatory properties that speed up recovery and decrease risk of injuries.

Due to their zinc content, meat, fish, nuts, seeds and whole grains should be staple foods to help your youth athlete recover from a tough practice, while supporting growth and even provide wound-healing properties. Zinc is a component of proteins and enzymes and research has shown that insufficient zinc can delay recovery and wound-healing.

I hope you find useful these basic strategies to support your adolescent in their sport. It is important to make sure your adolescent is consuming balanced meals consistently with snacks in between before implementing supplements, as supplements are meant to satisfy the gaps in nutrition. Good nutritional habits must be established first. Click here for information on building a performance plate.

Nutrition is a secret weapon! It can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good, the choice is up to you!

In good health,

Wendi Irlbeck, MS, RDN