Nutrition Sport Fitness Tips for Young Athletes

nutrition sport fitness

Improve performance in kids of all ages by following some basic nutrition sport fitness guidelines.

Sports nutrition is an important topic for anyone participating in physical activity. And that includes parents and coaches of young athletes.

In the hustle and bustle of our hectic daily schedules, often one of the first things to get neglected is healthy eating habits. As we haul kids from one after school activity to another, attend parent meetings and appointments, and meet the many other obligations that stretch us thin, we often don't make the time to eat right.

We do what we can on the move. Fast food or bust.

Eating right isn't easy. It takes intention, time, and effort to provide the nutrition that our children need. Especially if they're athletes.

A proper diet for most athletes consists of around 2,000 calories a day. However, nutritional experts say they could need as high as 5,000 daily calories depending on their level of activity.

Nutrition Sport Fitness
Not all calories are the same

What form those calories come in is super important. You can't expect to cram the body full of junk and expect it to perform well. What you eat and drink matters.

You've probably heard the old mantra, "You are what you eat." There's a lot to that.

Eating a well-balanced diet is key to helping kids perform at their best, reduce their risk of injury, and improve their body's rate of recovery after exercise.

Standard sports nutrition guidelines recommend the following breakdown in the types of foods that should be consumed each day: 

55-65% carbohydrates

20-30% fat

15-20% protein

Nutrition Sport Fitness
Carbohydrates

Also known as carbs, carbohydrates are the body's main source of energy. They help regulate blood sugar levels and are used by the muscles during movement. 

Exactly how much do you need? Well, it depends. The intensity of the activity, gender, age, and environmental factors like temperature and humidity all influence the optimal amount needed. 

nutrition for sport

Typically the harder you work, the more you need.

So what happens if athletes don't eat enough carbs?

  • They feel like they don't have enough energy
  • They fatigue quickly
  • Their level of attention and concentration is reduced
  • They experience delayed muscle recovery when they're finished exercising

Good sources of carbs include wholemeal bread, brown rice and pasta, potatoes, wholegrain cereals, and couscous. 

Avoid sugary carbs like candy bars and sodas as much as possible because they contain a lot of "empty" calories. They don't provide any other useful nutrients.

Nutrition Sport Fitness
Protein

Protein is crucial for muscle growth and repair, and it helps the body recover properly after exercise.

Once again, the amount needed depends on the type of activities, but typically 2-3 portions a day are recommended. Generally, those activities that require strength building require more protein intake.

Most teens actually get plenty of protein through regular good eating habits.  

Protein is found in foods like lean poultry, fish, eggs, low fat dairy, dairy alternatives, beans and lentils, and nuts. 

Nutrition Sport Fitness
Healthy Fats

The body needs fat to function properly. Healthy fats provide the body with vitamins A, D, E, and K. They also contain important fatty acids. 

Take caution with your fat intake though because too much can be stored in the body and cause weight gain. Fats are slow to be digested, so it's a good idea to avoid them a few hours before and after exercise to prevent stomach aches or nausea.

Good sources of fat include avocados, olive oil, cashews, almonds, walnuts, tuna, and salmon.

Minimize eating bad sources of fat like cakes, fast food, biscuits, butter, red meat, and sausages.

Nutrition Sport Fitness
Fruits & vegetables

Fruits and veggies:

  • build and repair muscles
  • produce energy the body needs
  • make hemoglobin which carries oxygen in your red blood cells throughout your body
  • maintain bone health
  • keep the immune system strong 
sports nutrition

Sports nutrition guidelines recommend 5 different servings recommended each day. For example, one medium piece of fruit, a small bowl of salad, or 3 heaped tablespoons of veggies.

Try to eat a rainbow of colors because different colored fruits and veggies contain different combination of vitamins and minerals.

Of all the food categories, this one seems to be the toughest one for parents to get their kids to eat.

Fruits aren't usually a problem because of their natural sweetness. 

But vegetables are another story. Encouraging your little ones to start eating veggies while they're young gives them a head start on a lifelong nutritional habit that's so important as their bodies grow and develop.

Nutrition Sport Fitness
Vitamins & minerals

By eating a well-balanced diet, there shouldn't be any need for supplements of any kind. All the vitamins and minerals a healthy, active body needs will be supplied by the balanced variety of foods recommended above.

There are a couple key nutrients to point out that are particularly important for athletes.

Calcium is super important for building strong bones and preventing against stress fractures that come from repetitive pounding on the bones like in running and jumping. Good sources of calcium include low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Iron is another important nutrient for athletes. It's responsible for carrying oxygen to the muscles. Lean meat, fish, poultry, iron-fortified cereals, and green leafy veggies are great sources of iron. 

Nutrition Sport Fitness
Fluids

Fluids are a super important part of healthy sports nutrition. Water makes up ⅔ of the human body. It's involved in just about every bodily function. Water is important to the body while it's sedentary and when it's taxed through exercise.

The importance of drinking plenty of water cannot be overstated. A lot of times we wait until we're thirsty to get a drink. Big mistake. Thirst is a sign the body has been fluid deficient for awhile. It's a great habit to sip on water throughout the day.

Physical activity causes a lot of water to be lost through sweating. To prevent dehydration and overheating, this water must be replaced. Staying well hydrated before, during, and after exercise increases energy, regulates body temperature, helps focus and concentration, and prevents muscle cramps.

During exercise, try to drink water every 15-20 minutes. But be careful not to drink too much too quickly. A bloated stomach with liquid sloshing around doesn't feel good at all.

Nutrition Sport Fitness
Pre-game meal

  • Eat 3-4 hours before the event. This allows for optimal digestion and energy supply.
  • Consume a small meal consisting of 500-1,000 calories. That's enough to keep you from being hungry while preventing undigested foods from accumulating in the stomach.
  • Meal should be high in carbohydrates. They're digested quickly from the stomach in 2-3 hours and provide consistent energy. 
  • Avoid high-sugar foods. They cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid "crash" with low energy. They also pull fluid into the gastrointestinal tract, leading to dehydration, cramping, nausea, and diarrhea.
  • Avoid fat. It takes longer to digest and causes stomach discomfort.
  • Avoid caffeine. It leads to dehydration by causing the body to produce urine. 

Nutrition Sport Fitness
Post-game meal

Eating a small meal within 30 minutes is beneficial to replenish nutrients that have been lost through exercise. If eating a meal that soon is difficult, try to at least drink a healthy smoothie, glass of chocolate milk, or some other protein-rich snack.

Bottom line:

The importance of building good, healthy, lifelong nutrition habits in your young athletes cannot be overemphasized. A balance of proper eating and proper training equates to maximum athletic performance. 

See related sports nutrition articles for children and adolescents:

USDA Nutrition for Athletes

Nutrition for the Athlete

A Guide to Eating for Sports

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