Unique Nutrition Challenges for Young Athletes
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. The contents of this article are not intended to make health or nutrition claims about our products. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health and nutrition related activity.
In Clif Bar & Company's collective years of experience with athletes and sports nutrition, we have developed a deep understanding of the role nutrition can play in helping athletes of all ages and abilities meet their potential. Young athletes often have high hopes for performance in various sports, but lack the nutritional knowledge and behavior that helps support their goals. Athletic trainers, coaches, sports dietitians, and even teachers have an opportunity to positively influence young athletes when it comes to nutrition.
Young athletes should consume wholesome, nutritious foods to fuel their sports training. Knowing what and when to eat can have an important role in maximizing energy during practice and in competition. Good nutrition should be built into a daily eating pattern that includes before, during, and after exercise. "Should" is the key word here. This age group often faces unique challenges to eating in a way that supports their needs.
Challenges for the young athlete
This group often lacks the basic nutrition knowledge needed to make the right food and beverage choices at even the most basic level. A young athlete also faces unique challenges in meeting their energy and nutrient demands for training and competition in addition to those of their growing body. A good nutrition foundation for teen athletes starts by ensuring they get nutrients from as many fresh food options as possible: fruit, veggies, whole grains, and lean protein sources.
Once a nutritious foundation is established, athletes participating in high level sports should learn to pay special attention to the quality, quantity, and timing of their food intake. Between training, academics, and social outings, a teen's life can be a balancing act. However, if they have guidance and nutritious, portable foods available to support their on-the-go nature, (foods that also fit their often narrow taste preferences), it may become easier over time for them to form eating patterns that serve both their nutritional needs and their hectic schedule.
Nutrients of concern
Some teen athletes don't have access to healthy foods at school or home; others may be weight-conscious and skip meals or snacks. These challenges may lead to athletes consuming too few carbohydrates and proteins while also missing out on other key nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamin D.
What to do?
Athletic trainers, coaches, and parents can reach out to registered dietitians for sports nutrition guidance and either connect young athletes with them directly or educate themselves on the application of evidence-based sports nutrition.
Athletic trainers and coaches should consider the following methods:
- Invite a certified sports dietitian to speak with your teams, both as a group and on an individual basis.
- Partner with the school's health class curriculum to introduce both foundational nutrition and sports nutrition principles to the entire student body.
- Ensure you are providing inquiring minds with accurate nutrition advice by taking advantage of these reputable resources:
- Australian Institute of Sport
- Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition
- The Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitian Association
Sport nutrition for young athletes, Paediatr Child Health. 2013 Apr; 18(4): 200–202. Laura K Purcell and Canadian Paediatric Society, Paediatric Sports and Exercise Medicine Section
Sports Dietitians Australia Position Statement: Sports Nutrition for the Adolescent Athlete. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2014, 24, 570 -584h