Fueling for Fitness: How to get your Child Athletes the Nutrients they Need

Active pre-teen and teenagers require adequate nutrition to support their bodies and their goals. With that being said, there is one thing we should be cognizant of, your pre-teens and/or teenagers are not small adults. 

An adolescent's rapid growth, increase in muscle mass, and changes in hormones may influence their nutrient and fluid needs in unique ways. Despite the increasing awareness of the uniqueness of young athletes, large gaps exist in our understanding of how their bodies react to physical stress and how their nutritional needs change as a result. Filling in those gaps isn’t always easy. 

Let’s go through some common concerns like caloric intake, then we’ll talk about what kinds of calories should be showing up in your young athlete’s diet and finally we’ll give you a few general tips for fueling your active kids. 

Getting Enough Calories

Your body needs calories to operate - identifying how active your teen is is an important factor involved in figuring out the calorie and macronutrient needs for your child. It varies per child and the energy they use per activity. 

Not Active: Your child or preteen is primarily sedentary with minimal energy used throughout the day.

Somewhat Active: Your child or preteen is active for around 30- 40 minutes a day, but they spend most of their free time sedentary. This type of fitness could include walking to school or around the neighborhood for less than 3 miles.

Active: Your child or preteen is considered to be active if they spend a lot of their energy doing activities throughout the day, or intensive fitness for a short period of time. They are probably on a sports team, exercise daily, or walk for more than 3 miles a day.

How to build the perfect plate for your young athlete

Let’s dive a little deeper into what kinds of foods you want to reach for when you’re putting together meals for your active kids. We’re going to talk about two major macronutrients - carbohydrates and protein.

Carbohydrates for Athletic Kids

Carbohydrates come from fruits, vegetables and grains, like whole grain breads, crackers, cereals or pasta, and are great healthy options to fuel the body. They aid in sustaining exercise, and are also great for replenishing the body after so many calories were used. Carbohydrates are perfect before games or exercise.

Protein for Athletic Kids

Both pre and post workout protein is important for the bodies of athletes. Ideally, protein doses should  be evenly distributed, every 3–4, across the day for very active children for optimal recovery and muscle gain.

Studies have suggested that consuming complete proteins before exercise, in combination with carbohydrates, can help maximize muscle recovery - but the timing of protein consumption does not make a difference on exercise performance, according to The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). Consuming protein after exercising also was shown to aid in optimal muscle recovery and helped in avoiding muscle soreness and damage and is also important for young athletes who enjoy cardio.

Protein helps build and repair muscles both during and after exercise. Try adding lean protein to their diets, think foods like poultry, fish, milk, eggs, soy, and quinoa.

Beyond carbs and protein, adding healthy fats from foods like nuts and avocados can be essential in providing adequate calories in the diet as well. And don’t forget the veggies for a good serving of fiber. When in doubt, just eat the rainbow. Aim to have a variety of colors on your plate at meal times. 

General Tips for Fueling Your Active Child 

Cardio, or aerobic fitness are exercises that get your heartbeat up fast, thus using a lot of energy (calories). Hydration and adequate calories are important before participating in cardio fitness activities.

The following activities are great for cardiovascular fitness: 

  • Running or walking
  • Most team sports such as soccer, basketball, football, cheer, volleyball
  • Swimming
  • Riding a bike

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, endurance athletes should focus on achieving adequate carbohydrate intake to promote optimal performance; the addition of protein may help to offset muscle damage and promote recovery.

Anaerobic exercise is different from aerobic. It is usually higher in intensity using short bursts of energy and muscle strength - while aerobic/cardio involves more insurance. 

Examples of anaerobic fitness your child may enjoy: 

  • Sprinting
  • Gymnastics
  • Lifting weights or resistance bands

Both anaerobic and aerobic activities usually lead to sweating and hydration loss. It is important that your child is drinking fluids before, during, and after these types of activities.

Before games or practice, provide your child with snacks rich in carbohydrates to provide energy. Give them something easy to digest and low in fat like a smoothie, carton of yogurt, or fruit. After exercising, it’s important to refuel muscles with some beneficial carbohydrates and protein as mentioned above. Great post-exercise foods are sandwiches, fruits, yogurt and smoothies.