The Importance of Nutrition in Youth Sports

By R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen

Athletes at all ages and levels need to use nutrition to be effective in their sport.  For youth athletes, the primary goal with nutrition is getting the energy needed to play the sport.  It is also important to note that youths will need more fuel than an adult because they are still growing.  Add in training and games, and kids and teens will need to eat – the right kinds of foods – frequently to keep their bodies healthy and ready to take on the challenge.

When Should a Youth Athlete Fuel Up?

Well, youth athletes really need to be eating frequently throughout the day.  The best way to make sure this happens is to keep small snacks in their backpacks and sports bags.  Things like pretzels, fruits, sports drinks and sports bars are always good options.  These snacks are filling, will not spoil and provide the calories and nutrients necessary for a snack.

Prior to a game or big practice, youths should have a nutritious meal about two hours before.  This meal should be high in carbohydrates and foods that are easily digested.  Whole grains, vegetables and fruits should be the biggest part of these meal.  A little protein (about four ounces) can also be helpful.  Plenty of water should also be consumed to get the body fully hydrated.  Foods high in saturated fats and simple sugars should be avoided.

Post-game nutrition is also critical.  It may be tempting to take youth athletes out for ice cream and pizza following a big game – and while this is fine once in a while – but this can actually be counterproductive.  The goal of a post-game meal is to replace the nutrients lost during physical activity.  Following the Food Guide Pyramid is the best way to ensure a well-rounded after-game meal.  The youths should get plenty of whole grains, some protein and some vegetables and fruits.

Deficiencies to Look Out For in Youth Athletes

Growing kids are vulnerable to calcium and iron deficiencies.  A calcium deficiency in growing kids and teens can be particularly dangerous.  Not having enough calcium can interfere with bone growth, as well as increase the risk of fracture.  Recent statistics have shown that 64 percent of teenage boys and 86 percent of teenage girls are deficient in calcium.  The National Institutes of Health have set the following Recommended Dietary Allowances for calcium: kids 4-8 should be getting 1,000mg per day, kids 9-13 should be getting 1,300mg per day and teens 14-18 should be getting 1,300mg per day.

Iron deficiencies are most often seen in teenage girls when we look at the youth spectrum, but all kids and teens are at risk.  Kids need iron for optimal growth and development.  It is also critical for energy.  Feeling weak and lightheaded are also possible.  The National Institutes of Health have set the following Recommended Dietary Allowances for iron: kids 4-8 should be getting 10mg per day, kids 9-13 should be getting 8mg per day and teens 14-18 should be getting 11mg per day for males and 15mg per day for females.

R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen is a former athlete and current coach.  She has a background in nursing, fitness and nutrition and sports nutrition.   She combines her passion and education for both sports and health and uses it to influence her writing.  Follow Rose on Twitter @Rose_Kitchen