What young athletes should be eating to perform their best?

Whether you are an elite level athlete or simply just someone who enjoys playing sports, your nutrition can have a significant impact on the way you perform, the quality of our performance and recovery. For young athletes the importance of eating a healthy balanced diet is increased as a body of a young athlete is undergoing the development process, as well as the demands of physical activity.

We work with grassroots sports club to elite level academies.

Our in-house certified Nutrition Expert Rachel answers some of the FAQs that coaches and parents ask us often. 

Is there a specific diet young athlete should be following?

 There isn’t a specific set diet which athletes are recommended to follow however, the right nutrition will support performance and recovery.  When it comes to athletes there are several factors such as intensity, age, body weight, training frequency and goals. These factors can help you determine your nutritional needs. An example carbohydrate requirement are increased endurance athletes to provide energy and improve glycogen storage. Whilst protein requirements are increased for strength athletes to support the growth of muscle. When we engage in physically activity, we have higher energy requirements because about body is using up more energy. Therefore, eating smaller meals frequently with snacks in between is recommended.

What foods can help a young athlete ensure they getting the right amount of nutrients and fuel?

A young athlete should be incorporating each of the food groups (carbohydrates, protein and essential fats) into each meal every day. Five to six small balanced meals with snacks in between should be more than enough to sustain a young athlete energy and nutrient requirements. Eating lighter meals every 3-4 hours as opposed to 3 larger meals will ensure you don’t feel sluggish during training, as it can be harder to perform well after a heavy meal.


Complex Carbs

Complex carbohydrates are more favourable for young athletes because they contain naturally occurring sugars, fibre, vitamins and minerals needed to fuel performance. Complex carbs are present in foods such as whole grains, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole wheat pastas and breads. These foods provide a slower release energy so, will help prevent spikes in blood sugar and provide sustained energy making you feel energised for longer.


Do they need more proteins?

Young athletes need slightly more protein than their peers who aren't as active. Protein is important for young athletes not only will it help with growth, repair and maintenance of muscle but it will also help with development process a young body undergoes. When we exercise our muscle cells can breakdown or tear, the protein from our diet helps to repair the damage and rebuild muscle. Good source of protein includes lean meats, chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, tofu, nuts and nut butters. Around 20-30% of a young athlete’s calories should come from protein.


Essential Fats and Micro Nutrients

Essential fats are also a source of energy for athletes, and a crucial part of our diets. Fats are typically used for lower intensity activity. ‘healthy’ fats such as unsaturated fats can be useful for reducing inflammation, aid in vitamin absorption and hormone balance. Fats should make up around 20% of an athlete’s diet. We can expect to find essential fats in foods such as avocados, walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, cheese, chia seeds, flaxseed and olives.


How can a younger athlete ensure they are getting enough protein for the growth and repair of muscles and should they be supplementing?

Young people have different nutritional needs to adults. They need different amounts of protein, carbohydrates & other nutrients, which most companies in the fitness industry fail to acknowledge. It is important to bear in mind that a young athlete’s digestive system isn’t fully developed so it can be harder for them to digest huge amounts of protein like adults can. Protein powders and supplements are not necessary for children as it’s not formulated for them, and sufficient protein can be obtained through diet alone. Fortunately, the ProYouth performance nutrition bar contains 10 grams and is formulated specially for young athletes. The ProYouth bars is ideal workout snack that you can enjoy pre and post workout and makes a great snack to top up on protein. The RDA for protein is 46 grams for teenage girls and 52 grams for teenage boys per day. For those who are highly active may need slightly more, protein needs can vary due to age, gender, body weight and training intensity.


How can our diet help with us preforming better and reducing injury risk?

Eating nutrient rich foods can help with performance and reduction of injury. Foods that a rich in iron and b vitamins such as dark leafy green vegetables, whole grains, fortified breakfast and fish will help to increase energy levels. Similarly, antioxidant rich foods can help defend against oxidative stress and damage to our cells cause by exercise. We can find antioxidant rich foods in citrus fruit, berries, bell peppers, dark leafy green vegetables and dark chocolate. Omega 3 fatty acids help with cell protection and can help reduce muscles soreness and inflammation, lubricate the joints and enhance mental focus. Some of the best sources are oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring), other seafood, flaxseeds, chia seed and walnuts.

 How to create healthy eating behaviours as a young athlete?

Habits developed in childhood are likely to persist into later life. Childhood is the best place to start when trying to adopt healthy eating habits. Majority of the time a child behaviour in leant from their parents or those surrounding them, so the home is a great place to begin. Parents can encourage healthy eating habits by setting a good example this could mean stocking up your fridge with healthy foods, introducing your child to a variety of fruit and veg by incorporating them into meal times, educating your child on healthier options and the importance of nutrition and eating together as a family where possible. It’s important to emphasise that food is fuel and it’s to be enjoyed, we should aim to create a positive relationship with food and eating.

Author :

Rachel Akuffo, ANutr - Certified Nutritionist.