Nutrition & Diet

What are the nutritional needs of your athletic kids & teens?

Written by Apurva Surve
Published: March 2, 2023
Apurva Surve is a consulting sports nutritionist and has more than 11 years of experience assisting fitness enthusiasts and athletes in achieving nutrition and performance goals. She has a bachelor's and master's degree in food science and nutrition, as well as an International Olympic Committee Post Graduate Diploma in Sports Nutrition.

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Children and teenagers go through a period of rapid growth and physical development that involves changes in body composition, metabolic and hormonal fluctuations, organ maturation, and the formation of nutritional deposits, all of which can have an impact on future health. Basic and sports nutrition is vital for growth, development, and achieving optimum health and athletic performance. Nutritional deficiencies in children and adolescents not only hinder growth and development but also affects athletic and academic performance. Modern-day pressures have a considerable impact on the eating habits of young athletes. Peers, teammates, professional athletes, coaches, and the media all have substantial effects that might lead to vulnerability, ranging from poor dental health to restrictive eating, bad eating habits, and disordered eating. As a result, a young athlete’s diet should focus on meeting nutritional requirements for optimal growth, maturation, and physical development, as well as ensuring enough energy and nutrient intake to support sports training loads. 

How much energy do athletic kids and teens need?

Athletic children and adolescents should consume enough energy to meet their growth and development needs as well as the energy demands of exercise. There are no simple ways for determining the exact energy requirements of young athletes. The energy (or calories) requirements of young athletes depend on several factors like age, weight, gender and activity level. As a result, growth and health markers like height, weight, immunity, etc. will help to determine whether overall energy intake is adequate. 

Low energy intake in young athletes can lead to a variety of health problems, including delayed puberty, menstrual irregularities, poor bone health, short stature, the development of disordered eating patterns, and an increased risk of injury. On the other hand, chronic consumption of excess energy intake may lead to an increased risk of overweight/obesity, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension, as well as an increased risk of injury. 

Athletic teens require more calories to support their athletic body workout, as well as for optimal growth, muscle and bone development, and maturity. A female teen athlete, for example, may require almost 3,000 calories per day, whereas a male teen athlete may require approximately 4,000 calories per day. Teens that participate in various sports have higher calorie requirements. To meet the higher energy demands on training days, young athletes should be encouraged to consume frequent nutrient-packed meals and snacks. Including healthy calorie foods such as whole grain cereals, pulses, dairy products, and nuts while limiting empty calorie foods such as sugary items, carbonated beverages, low-fibre foods, and salty or fatty foods might help them get the nourishment they need.

What are the adequate amounts of carbohydrates, protein and fat for your active kids? 

The carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake recommendations for young and teen athletes are very similar to those for adult athletes. Carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for an athlete’s body and brain. Carbohydrates help athletes sustain their training intensity, prevent muscle breakdown, and delay fatigue. Some carbohydrates (white bread/rice/pasta, bananas, dates, diluted fruit juices) provide a rapid source of energy. Other carbohydrates (oats, full grain bread/brown rice/pasta, apples) replenish your fuel stores for later use. When carbohydrate intake is low, energy levels, strength, stamina, and decision-making abilities may decline during workouts. This could lead to poor performance and a higher risk of getting injured.

Protein is required for growth and development, energy production, muscle building, tissue repair and immune function in the body. Protein requirements are between 1.3-1.8g per kg per day. The amount for optimal intake of protein for kids in athletics is measured, as grams required per kilogram of their body weight, which means if your child weighs 50 kg then the requirement of protein intake per day would be 65-90 grams. Four to five separate protein servings should be consumed throughout the day rather than in one or two large meals. Plant-based foods, dairy and dairy products, and animal-based foods (e.g. pulses, peas, seeds, nuts, soya, cheese, yoghurt, milk, etc.) are all good sources of protein. 

Fats are essential for body temperature regulation, immunological function, organ cushioning and protection, nerve transmission, vitamin absorption, and providing energy for long-term, low-intensity aerobic exercises. Fat should account for 20-35% of total energy intake. It is encouraged to consume more unsaturated fat sources, such as olive oil, nuts, oilseeds, and avocado. 

Macronutrient Recommendations
Carbohydrates Low-intensity or skill-based activity: 3–5 g/kg/dModerate exercise program (e.g., training 1 hr/d): 5–7g/kg/dEndurance program (e.g., training 1–3 hr/d): 6–10g/kg/dExtreme exercise program (e.g., training 4–5 hr/d): 8–12g/kg/d
Proteins 1.3-1.8g per kg per day
Fats 20-35% of total energy intake 

If you’re wondering how to get an athletic body, here’s a summary of macronutrient recommendations for a young athlete’s diet plan:

Specific micronutrients for athlete’s diet

All micronutrients are important for teen athletes, but iron, calcium, and vitamin D continue to get the most attention. Calcium absorption requires adequate quantities of vitamin D. Sufficient vitamin D and calcium levels are thus essential for ensuring maximum bone mineral accumulation in developing young and teenage athletes. By the end of the teen years, the bone mineral content is about 95% of what it will be as an adult. Adolescent athletes must ensure maximum bone mineral content accumulation to maximize peak bone mass and limit the risk of skeletal injuries (e.g., stress fractures) and osteoporosis in adulthood. Vitamin D is also important for immunity and skeletal muscle regeneration. Adolescent athletes who practice and compete indoors all year should be given special consideration, especially during the winter months when sun exposure is minimal. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, ragi, amaranth seeds, sesame seeds, shellfish, etc. 

Iron needs rise during childhood and adolescence due to tissue expansion. Females’ iron requirements increase as menstruation begins. Exercise can make you lose iron through a process called haemolysis, as well as through your urine, faeces, and sweat. Young and teen athletes involved in regular intensive training programs can be at risk of developing iron deficiency and the main cause is often not getting enough iron from food (often along with not getting enough calories or eating a vegetarian diet). Low iron levels can lead to iron deficiency anaemia if they are not treated, which can make athletes feel tired and unable to do their best. 

Tips for preventing and treating iron deficiency-

  • Eat iron-rich plant foods regularly (e.g. green leafy vegetables, lentils, garden cress seeds, roasted black chana)
  • Add vitamin C-rich foods to your meals to increase iron absorption (e.g. sprinkling lemon juice or adding tomatoes to vegetable preparations)

Hydration and Fluid requirements

Our bodies are made up of ~60% water. Water helps the body in many ways, but it is especially important when we work out because it helps keep our blood volume up and maintains our core temperature. When we work out, we sweat and lose water through evaporation on our skin. This helps us stay cool. If we don’t replace the water we lose, we can get dehydrated. Dehydration leads to early tiredness and decreases your kid’s performance. 

A simple technique to assess dehydration is to check for urine colour and volume. A smaller volume of urine and a darker colour first thing in the morning may indicate dehydration. For everyday hydration, water is the preferred choice. An electrolyte drink or oral rehydration solution (ORS) that follows the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines can be used pre- or post-exercise for more effective hydration if athletes are showing signs of dehydration. Simple hydration strategies especially in hot and humid conditions should be used. These can include, the addition of flavoured water, the use of ice slushies and planned fluid breaks during training/competition. 

What to eat before, during and after sports training? 

Pre-training meals have several benefits and, when properly planned, can help to improve performance by fuelling and hydrating the body for the upcoming training session. Failure to properly fuel or hydrate before exercise can result in: earlier onset of fatigue, decreased speed, especially during repeat efforts, decreased endurance, poor concentration and decision making, skill errors, gut upset, and suboptimal body composition. Thus, it is recommended that a pre-event meal be eaten ~1–4 hours before the training session/competition. 

For exercise lasting less than an hour, it is not necessary to refuel with carbohydrates during training. Consuming 400 to 800ml of plain water per hour of training is sufficient. When exercising for longer than an hour, refuelling with carbohydrates can increase endurance and improve performance.
Inadequate recovery, particularly if training multiple times per day, can lead to fatigue, and reduced performance in the following training session. Sports nutrition strategy is an important part of a recovery plan that provides the appropriate nutrients at the appropriate time. Carbohydrates help refill depleted fuel stores, protein helps repair damaged muscle and build new muscle tissue, and fluids and electrolytes help to rehydrate. Examples of foods to include in your athlete’s diet plan:

Pre-training foods (3-4 hours before training/competition):

  • Dal rice and cooked vegetables with curd
  • Cereal porridge with milk, nuts and fruits 
  • Veg wraps or sandwiches 

Pre-training foods (30-60mins before training/competition):

  • Bananas, dates, raisins
  • Fruit juice  
  • Bread jam 

During training (longer than an hour):

  • 250 ml fruit juice mixed with 250 ml water
  • A handful of raisins
  • 1–2 bananas 
  • Fruit bread or bread jam

Immediately post-training/competition:

  • Milk-based drinks like Bournvita or fruit smoothies 
  • Yoghurt with fruit and nuts
  • Paneer/cheese sandwich

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The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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