How To Plan The Perfect Diet For Your Young Athlete

The younger you are, the more energy you spend. Be it a 4-year-old or an 18-year-old, youngsters need a lot more fuel than an adult on any given day. When combined with athletic activities, the energy expenditure is much higher. The best way to ensure the success of a young athlete is to create the perfect diet plan.

Managing the diet plan of your young athlete is all about meeting the energy intake required to balance the calories burnt. Here are a few tips you can follow to create a diet plan that provides all the important nutrients, keeps your kid hydrated and energetic, and helps them cross the winning line.

Focus On The Energy Requirement

Young athletes burn a lot more energy than adults do

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An adolescent burns much more energy for an activity (let’s say a short run) than you would in the same amount of time practicing any activity.1 A possible reason for this is a lack of coordination between agonist and antagonist muscles or due to much faster strides.2 This pattern of energy expenditure applies to other sports/activities as well. Consequently, young athletes need a lot more food and nutrition than adults to maintain good health and perform well.

How Much Energy Do Young Athletes Need?

This table gives an average amount of energy required by youngsters of different age groups:3

Age (in years) Male (kcal/day) Female (kcal/day)
4–6 1800 1800
7–10 2000 2000
11–14 2500 2200
15–18 3000 2200

As you can see, the energy requirement varies in kids based on age and gender. These values are the minimum amount of energy kids need on any given day without taking into consideration any growth spurts or physical activity levels. Based on the intensity of activities, kids might face energy deficit or excess.

  • An energy deficit can lead to delayed puberty; menstrual issues; susceptibility to fatigue, illness, or injury; and a short stature to state a few.
  • Excess energy can cause overweight and obesity.

Follow A Diet With Balanced Nutrition

Young athletes require a diet filled with crabs, protein, fat, and macronutrients

The key to proper sports nutrition for youth athletes is getting the basic nutrition right. Healthy food intake will balance the energy intake/expenditure, reduce the risk of injuries and fatigue, speed up the recovery, and improve the ability to train. To keep the young athletes fit and performing at their best, include these in their daily diet:

1. Carbohydrates

For youngsters aged 4–18, carbs should make up 45–65 percent of the total caloric intake.4

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Carbohydrates, as the main source of glucose for energy, are the most important part of your diet. Since the body burns a lot of energy during physical activities, you need a constant supply of carbs.

Choose good sources of complex carbs such as whole grains (oatmeal and brown rice), fruits, veggies, milk, and yogurt. Avoid processed foods like bread, pasta, or candies that provide simple carbs only a quick release of energy. Follow the 80:20 rule – eat 80 percent of complex carbs and 20 percent of simple carbs.

2. Protein

For youngsters aged 4–18, protein should make up 10–30 percent of the total energy intake.

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When you exercise, you mostly use carbs, not protein, as the main source of energy. But, with higher intensity and increased duration of exercise, you need protein to maintain blood glucose and thus help maintain energy levels.5 Additional, it helps your body to repair itself, from muscles to hair and nails and helps with regrowth.

Good food sources of protein include lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, peanuts, and dairy products. A fistful (20–40 g) of protein is good enough in a normal diet. However, to build some muscle mass, eat as much protein as your body weight in grams, spread across the day.

3. Fats

For youngsters aged 4–18 years, fats should make up 25–35 percent of the total energy intake.

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Fats are necessary (and not really) evil, sources of energy that are quite tough to use. These nutrients boost hormonal and brain development, protect organs by providing a cushioning effect, and provide essential fatty acids. However, watch what you eat as just 1 g of fat provides 9 kcal energy.6

Good fat sources include fish, lean meat, poultry, nuts, olive oil, seeds, and dairy products. Remember, gaining fat from processed foods like chips, fried and baked dishes, and candies will do you no good.

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Apart from the big 3, your body needs multiple other vitamins and minerals. But, some are more important than others for young athletes. Deficiencies of vitamin D, calcium, and iron can plague athletes and ruin their performance for seasons together. These are required for maintaining strong bones, muscle recovery, and for steady oxygen supply to the entire body.7

Foods rich in calcium include milk, yogurt, cheese, and leafy greens like spinach and broccoli. Eat lean meat, poultry, tuna, eggs, dried fruits, leafy greens, and fortified whole grains for adequate iron intake. Get some sunshine and drink vitamin D fortified milk to avoid vitamin D deficiency.

Drink Enough Liquids, Not Just Water

Young athletes need lot more than water to stay hydrated and fit

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The intensity and duration of the activity alone are enough to cause extreme stress and fatigue. Combined with dehydration, athletes fall prey to headaches, muscle cramps, extreme weakness, light-headedness, and even heat stress or stroke in outdoor activities.

Also, through sweat and urine, the body experiences a loss of electrolytes. Trying to replenish the body with just water leads to sodium deficiency and hyponatremia. This can further lead to illnesses ranging from muscle cramps to nausea, seizures, unconsciousness, and even death.8 Hence, certain steps need to be taken to ensure that athletes are adequately hydrated all the time, and not just with water.9

  • Parents/athletes themselves should ensure that they are fully hydrated before the activity.
  • Participants should drink liquids every 15 minutes during the activity, even if not thirsty.
  • Check body weight before and after the event as most changes to body weight are due to fluid intake. If the difference is huge, the athlete should drink adequate liquids between or after activities.
  • Beverages can be flavored to suit taste buds and ensure the athletes drink enough.10
  • Beverages should contain glucose and sodium chloride.
  • Drink water, diluted fruit juice, or sports drinks. During events, stick to water to avoid delayed gastric emptying, which could affect your performance.
  • Do not drink sweetened beverages like sodas or caffeine-rich energy drinks.

Plan The Day Of The Event

Follow your regular diet and routine on the day of the event

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The worst thing you can do to your body on the day of the event is trying new foods. Combined with the stress and nervousness, the new ingredients can mess up the stomach rather than boost energy. Similarly, trying new routines will increase the risk of injuries. Stick to the usual routine.

Time It Right

When and what you eat has a huge role to play in improving your performance. If your event in the morning, eat a snack or drink liquids about an hour or two before the event. Have your regular breakfast post the event. This will boost your energy for the drill, without making you too full, and help you recover later.

If your event is in the evening, eat your meal at least 3 hours before and snacks about an hour or two before the event. Eat again within half an hour of your workout/activity and again within an hour or two after the activity. This will help you rebuild the muscles and boost your recovery process. Recovery foods should contain protein and carbs, for example, peanut butter and juice or yogurt with fruit.

Factors that influence the athletic performance of youngsters, like genetics, stature, difficulty with weight control, and early or late maturation, are not under your control. But some things are, such as fat and mass gain, and diet-related performance problems like tiredness and bone density. These latter ones can be majorly influenced by a healthy, well-planned diet and be the winning factor. Know what’s healthy for your young performer, understand their body, and plan their routine and diet accordingly.

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