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Sharp Health News

Nutritional needs of young athletes

Oct. 27, 2016

Nutrition for teen athletes

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, 75 percent of boys and 69 percent of girls between the ages of 8 and 17 play a sport. That means young athletes are likely putting as much energy into their sport as they put into their daily family life, friends, hobbies and schoolwork.

However, the energy they need for sports is not always fueled with appropriate nutrition. Whether it’s poor choices, limited access to nutritious foods, lack of knowledge about their needs or even actively restricting their intake, young athletes often do not get the necessary nutrients.

“An adult’s basic nutrient needs are relatively constant,” says Dr. Catherine Sundsmo, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “When scaled to size, children’s nutritional requirements aren’t much different from adults’, but it’s difficult to predict how a growing child’s needs will change over time. Dramatic differences exist in growth patterns and the age at which adolescents reach adulthood, both of which affect nutrient and fluid requirements. Add to that the extra needs of the young athlete, and there’s much room for error.”

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, active teen boys need 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day and active girls need 2,200 to 3,000 calories, far more than their inactive peers. It is important that these calories come from foods that provide the nutrients young athletes need rather than from processed foods with unhealthy fats and added sugars.

According to Dr. Sundsmo, the following golden rules of nutrition can help young athletes ensure they are properly fueling their bodies:

Good choices mean great plays.
Avoid processed foods high in empty calories, saturated fat and added sugars. Instead choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, lean proteins and healthy (unsaturated) fats. Pack a few nutritious snacks each day to provide the extra calories and energy young athletes need and ensure they always have something good to eat on hand.

Carbohydrates are cool.
Don’t believe the hype about avoiding carbohydrates. Carbs are the body’s main source of fuel and without them, athletes might feel low-energy and not perform as well as they’d like. Make sure they are getting carbs before and after a practice or game.

Be pro-protein.
Proteins enable the body to build and repair muscles and tissue. Young athletes should avoid turning to protein shakes or bars as their source and instead add lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts or beans to each meal and snack. Chocolate milk after a practice or game is an excellent — and delicious — protein choice.

Hydration is huge.
If athletes are not properly hydrated, their bodies cannot perform at their highest level and may experience fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness or more serious symptoms. Water is sufficient for the average youth, but athletes can benefit from drinking low-sugar sports drinks that contain carbohydrates, protein and electrolytes.

“During adolescence, teens are in a transition period when they gradually take over responsibility for their own nutrition,” says Dr. Sundsmo. “Poor habits in adolescence can affect performance and lead to problems later in life, which is why learning about their nutritional needs during their teen years is so important.”

To learn more about how nutrition and diet support healthy living, visit the Nutrition Classes and Seminars page on

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