Health Matters: Good Nutrition for Youth Athletes
Young athletes demand more from their bodies, so they need to resource them properly. Good nutrition and hydration allow children and teens to compete competitively and safely.
Preparing for game day starts well before the competition. You cannot abuse your body day after day and then expect a pasta dinner the night before the big game to produce magical results. Achieving peak performance requires planning that includes eating a balanced diet over time and then adjusting for the immediate demands of endurance sports.
All children, athletes or not, need balanced nutrition and enough calories to grow. Depending on growth and activity levels, girls ages 14 to 18 need an average of 1,800 to 2,400 calories a day and boys of the same age need 2,000 to 2,400 calories a day. However, not all calories are created equal.
A healthy diet for young athletes should include a blend of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Vitamins and minerals support a variety of functions, from calcium that promotes strong bones and reduces stress fractures to iron that helps carry oxygen throughout the body. Protein helps build and repair muscles, while carbohydrates and fat provide short-term and long-term energy.
Sometimes in an effort to get stronger faster, some athletes use protein power and other supplements, but generally speaking, a healthy diet will provide all of the nutrients required. The best way to get bigger, stronger muscles isn’t protein shakes, it’s training—mixed strength/cardio training with rest periods for muscles to repair and grow.
Some young athletes use anabolic steroids to in hopes of quickly building muscle, but steroids come potentially dangerous side effects such as severe acne, and serious mental health problems such as aggression, severe mood swings and depression.
Although each body is different and athletes often need more protein than their less active peers, the Mayo Clinic recommends the following nutrition for adolescents ages 14 to 18. The daily intake for girls should be: 5-6.5 ounces of protein, 1.5-2 cups of fruit, 2.5-3 cups of vegetables, 6-8 ounces of grains (preferably whole grains), and 3 cups of dairy. For boys, it’s 5.5-7 ounces of protein, 2-2.5 cups of fruit, 2.5-4 cups of vegetables, 6-10 ounces of grains (preferably whole grains), and 3 cups of dairy.
Healthy protein includes seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, legumes (beans), nuts and seeds. Fruit juice is not the same as fruit because juice does not include fiber, which provides important resources for gut health and long-term energy. The best mix of vegetables includes a variety of dark leafy greens, red and orange. Whole grains such as brown or wild rice, popcorn, and oatmeal are best because they include all parts of the seed and are therefore better sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Dairy such as milk, yogurt, and cheese provide calcium and some fat.
As for hydration, water is almost always the best choice. Unless an athlete is putting out sustained effort for more than an hour, water will replenish the body’s fluid loss. Some endurance sports demand so much of athletes that they may benefit from electrolyte replacement (which can come from drinks like Gatorade or Cytomax), but short bursts of exercise generally do not.
A word of caution for athletes trying to lose weight—healthy weight loss equates to 1-2 pounds per month. Dropping weight quickly can cause dehydration, irregular heart rates, and a metabolic imbalance that can, in severe cases, cause organs to begin to shut down. To punish your body with a scarcity of food and water and then expect it to perform during athletic competition is a bad idea.
To stay healthy and achieve peak performance, eat well, hydrate frequently, and alternate between training hard and resting. Several hours before competition, consider eating a meal of carbs, a little protein but low in fat, since fat takes longer to digest. Avoid sugary drinks and simple carbs like candy that will spike your energy and then drop it. After the game, hydrate and eat some carbs and protein to begin rebuilding.
Cindi Mockel, FNP, is a pediatric primary care provider at MCHC Health Centers—a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.