Three Important Nutrients All Young Athletes Should be Eating
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While all vitamins and minerals are important, certain ones are critical to healthy growth and development, particularly in active, athletic children. Pediatric dietitian and nutritionist Jill Castle reviews the three important micronutrients young athletes should be getting in their diet routinely.
You might already know that nutrition is important for your young athlete. Not only does good nutrition help ensure healthy growth and development, it also helps your child perform his best, on and off the field. You’ve also probably heard that carbohydrates give energy to exercising muscles, while protein sources help build and repair muscles.
But what about vitamins and minerals? Which ones are important for your soccer player?
Generally, it is accepted that a well-balanced, nutritious diet will provide the needed vitamins and minerals for growing children. Many experts also agree that micronutrients should ideally be obtained from food.
However, the potential constraints around sports training, school schedules, and food preferences may make meeting the vitamin and mineral requirements for your athlete a challenge. While every nutrient is important for growing kids, some require more attention, especially for your athlete.
Calcium is an important nutrient for building and maintaining healthy bones and teeth. From ages 9 to 18 years, calcium requirements are at their highest – 1300 mg each day. During this time, children are developing strong and dense bones through a calcium-rich diet and weight-bearing exercise.
Many children don’t meet their daily calcium needs, and studies show girls fall short on this nutrient more often than boys. Children and teens who avoid dairy products, are allergic to milk or soy, are vegetarian, or consume inadequate calories are at the highest risk of calcium deficiency.
Fortunately, there are many food sources of calcium for your athlete. Dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese, calcium-fortified products like orange juice or ready-to-eat cereals, and almonds and broccoli are examples of foods to include in your young athlete’s diet.
Vitamin D, or the sunshine vitamin, is a fat-soluble vitamin that assists with calcium absorption. It’s also involved in maintaining a healthy immune system. Vitamin D can be obtained from food and can also be made in the skin. Despite these two avenues, young athletes may fall short on vitamin D.
All children need 600 IU of vitamin D each day. While there are vitamin D foods, sources are limited. Natural sources are oily fish, mushrooms and eggs. Fortified foods such as milk, breakfast cereals, orange juice, and bread also offer vitamin D.
Inadequate intake of vitamin D food sources (without supplementation) places your athlete at risk of not getting enough of this important nutrient. Exercising indoors, living in the northern part of the United States, having dark skin, and routinely wearing sunblock while outside may also increase the risk for deficiency.
Iron carries oxygen in the blood, delivering it to organs and cells so they can function properly. Iron deficiency is common in adolescents, especially girls.3 As young athletes grow, their blood volume and muscle mass increase. Female and male athletes aged 9 to 13 years need 8 mg of iron each day, while teen boys and girls need 11 and 15 mg, respectively.
Including iron-rich foods such as beef, dark meat poultry, beans, ready-to-eat fortified cereals, tofu, spinach, and raisins can help young athletes meet their daily iron requirements. When eating plant-based iron sources, athletes should consume a source of vitamin C such as citrus fruits, tomatoes or red peppers to help improve iron absorption.
Jill Castle, MS, RDN, is a pediatric dietitian/nutritionist and author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. She pens The Nourished Child blog and is the voice behind The Nourished Child podcast. Learn more about Jill here.
1. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Office of Dietary Supplements. (2017, March). Calcium Fact Sheet for Professionals. Retrieved from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factshe...
2. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2015) Dietary Guidelines. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguid...
3. Smith JW, Holmes ME, McAllister MJ. Nutritional Considerations for Performance in Young Athletes. J Sports Med. 2015; 2015.