Nutrition for Youth Athletes

Good nutrition goes hand in hand with training when it comes to how well an athlete will perform.

There’s only one place that athletes can get the energy they need to train from (or to do anything for that matter!) and that’s food. The food they eat will have a direct effect on how well they do or don’t perform and really can be the difference between winning or losing.

This is especially important for youth athletes too. Most people tend to see young athletes just as “mini adults”, but what they don’t realise is how different their nutritional requirements actually are. Youth athletes have to balance a full-time sports schedule with full-time schoolwork too. That puts huge demands on the body in terms of the energy and nutrients it needs to keep going. Add on top of that the extra demands of normal growth and development and maturation and it becomes quite clear why they simply can’t just be thought of as “mini adults”.

So, here at Youth Sport Nutrition, we’re going to explain what exactly are the nutritional requirements of youth athletes and how can they meet them?

Energy

The first and most important aspect of nutrition for youth athletes is simply making sure they’re eating enough. To perform at their best and most importantly to stay healthy, youth athletes need to make sure they match the number of calories they’re eating to the number of calories that their bodies are using. Think of it like a seesaw, if both sides are balanced then athletes will have enough energy to stay fit and healthy and perform at their best both on the pitch and in school too. But if the seesaw gets off balance then this can have all sorts of negative effects and can lead to a condition known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (REDs), which can have really serious effects on health and increase the risk of injury and illness. As you can imagine, injured or ill athletes can’t perform at their best either, so they’ll start to notice a decline in performance too.

How Much do Youth Athletes Need to Eat?

While the exact number of calories a youth athlete burns each day will vary depending on things like their age, height, weight, gender and training schedule, it will be much higher than other kids and teens the same age. In fact, it’s probably higher than most adults too!

A recent study of male academy footballers found that players used between 2800kcal per day in the U12/13 category, right up to more than 3500kcal in the U18 ages [1]. This means that to keep that seesaw in balance, these athletes would need to be eating far more than the average grown man each day.

What Type of Food Should Youth Athletes Eat?

Now that we’ve covered the importance of eating enough, let’s take a look at what types of food athletes should eat and when.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the main fuel source that the muscles use during high intensity or fast exercise. Carbohydrates eaten from food can be stored in the muscles in the form of glycogen. Making sure the muscles are fully topped up with glycogen by eating a high carb meal or snack before a training session or game is key to good performance. Think of it like putting petrol in a car, if you only have half a tank before you set off on a big journey, you’ll run out of fuel halfway. The muscles work the same. If you haven’t topped up your glycogen stores before a session, then your performance will suffer, and you’ll tire much more quickly.

The muscles can store enough glycogen to last around 60-90 minutes of exercise, for anything longer you’ll need an extra boost midsession. For example, having some extra carbs during half-time of a game is usually a good idea to top up those stores and make sure you see out the full-time whistle in peak condition. After the game, when muscle stores are empty, it’s really important to eat a high carb meal in the hour or two after to replenish them as quickly as possible. Especially when athletes have another game or training session the next day.

High carbohydrates foods for youth athletes include things like:

  • Pasta, rice, noodles
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Bread, bagels, wraps
  • Bananas
  • Fruit juices and sports drinks.

Protein

Most athletes will know that protein is the key nutrient to muscle growth and repair, but what they might not realise is that it also makes up pretty much everything in the body too! This makes it especially important for youth athletes to help with their performance and recovery, but it’s also vital for normal growth and development and all of the other functions in the body.

Rather than eating loads of protein in one meal, athletes should spread this out evenly throughout the day. This means aiming to eat 20-30g of protein in breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as 10-15g of protein in a mid-morning and afternoon or evening snack too. After exercise athletes should eat a meal or snack with 20g of protein in to kickstart muscle repair and reduce the time needed for recovery.

Good sources of protein for youth athletes are:

  • Meat and fish
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Yoghurt 
  • Soy products

Fat

Fats tend to get a lot of bad press, but believe it or not, they’re a key part of an athlete’s diet. Not only do they provide the body with the energy it uses for lower intensity exercise like jogging, the body also needs them to get and transport lots of different vitamins and minerals too. Fats do take longer to be broken down by the body though, so avoid eating fatty foods before exercise as this might cause stomach pains. Increase your fat intakes on rest days when the body doesn’t need to get its energy from carbohydrates.

Good sources of fats for you athletes are:

Saturated fats (eat this kind in moderation)

  • Red meat
  • Dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt

Unsaturated fats (eat plenty of these on rest days or after training)

  • Oils
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Oily fish like salmon and mackerel
  • Avocados
  • Olives

So, although we can’t get our energy in the same way as phones or cars by plugging in or filling with petrol, our bodies do work in a similar way. Keep your energy stores topped up with the right kinds of foods and you’re guaranteed to see an improvement in your performance.

If you’re looking to learn more about how nutrition can help make you a better athlete then head over to the forum section of the Youth Sport Nutrition website where you’ll find 100’s of easy to read blogs: https://www.youthsportnutrition.co.uk/blogs/teamysn-forum. Or, why not follow us on social media and get regular performance nutrition tips to up your game.

To receive 10% off of all YSN products simply use the code ADP10 at the checkout.

Emmy Campbell, BSc., MSc, SENr., Registered Nutritionist @teamYSN_

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