I have written many articles on sports nutrition in the past couple of years, and I have spoken to thousands of young athletes, parents and coaches, and there are certain topics that come up again and again. I thought I would summarize the most frequently asked questions here. If you have any additional questions, don’t hesitate to ask!
1) How many calories does a young athlete need to eat in a day?
It is important for competitive young athletes to have an idea of how many calories they need to consume each day in order to support growth as well as their sport. There is no one number of calories needed per day; it depends on the child and their type, frequency and duration of exercise. Click HERE for a general idea on number of calories needed per day and HERE to figure out additional calories burned by exercise or sport based on age and weight.
2) Does a Young Athlete need extra protein?
Great question…we hear so much about protein and athletes, especially adult athletes. Young athletes do indeed require more protein than the average child/teen, about 1.0-1.4 gm/kg/day, which translates to about 6 ounces of protein per day. This is EASY to achieve with food alone and the typical American diet provides more than plenty of protein. With that said, young athletes are still growing and developing, and carbohydrates really should be the main component of their meals. Every day, young athletes should consume 55%-60% of their calories from carbohydrates, 15-20% from protein, and the rest from healthy fats. Too much protein in a young athlete’s diet can have harmful effects, and in my opinion, most protein supplements are simply not necessary.
3) How much should young athletes drink? Is water enough or do they NEED sports drinks?
Hydration, hydration, hydration…it can make or break an athlete’s performance. I cannot stress the importance of good hydration when playing sports. Well hydrated athletes have more energy and better mental alertness for quick decision-making. There are established guidelines by the American College of Sports Medicine:
Drink at least 16 ounces of water 2 hours before the event (this is the one we miss most frequently!)
8-16 ounces of water 15 minutes before the event
5-10 ounces every 15-20 minutes during exercise
drink AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE within 15-30 minutes after exercise
And always remember that young athletes need to drink CONSISTENTLY, not just before games! As far as what to drink, water is still all young athletes need for hydration most of the time. For older athletes who sweat a significant amount, studies have shown that when exercising for over an hour, a sports drink or a drink with electrolyte replacements might be beneficial. For more information on hydration, click HERE.
4) Are Energy drinks OK to drink for teen athletes?
NO! Energy drinks have caffeine as its main component in most cases. Caffeine is very dehydrating, and we just discussed the importance of staying well hydrated. Excess caffeine can also cause high blood pressure, high heart rates and jitteriness in younger teens. While some adolescents and young adults have reported better focus while on caffeine, the side effects and potential for serious health problems outweigh this potential benefit, especially for younger athletes.
5) What supplements (creatine, DHEA, GH) can a young athletes safely take?
I believe the best way to “supplement” your body is by eating the right kinds of foods. No pill, powder or bar will ever substitute a sensible diet. There are significant potential dangers and side effects with most supplements, and their safety is not regulated. Be well informed! Changes in mood, weight, behavior and academic performance can be linked to the use of supplements. There are safe ways of “bulking up” and improving athletic performance.