Fueling Your Growing Athlete

Teen playing basketball at the YMCA of Greater Brandywine

Article by Mary-Catherine Perry, RD, LDN at Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.

The challenge with young athletes is meeting their nutritional needs for growth, while fueling them with the right types and amounts of food for lasting energy during practice and games. The goal is to eat in preparation for exercise, rather than from a depletion in nutrients after exercise. Here are a few tips for fueling your growing athlete.

Carbohydrates are found in foods like pasta, rice, bread, cereal, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. They are the body’s preferred source of energy during a workout. During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into sugar and used immediately for energy, while some of this sugar is stored in the muscles or liver for later use. Carbohydrates should provide about half of your child’s caloric intake.

Limit simple carbohydrates like chips and sweets, also known as “empty calories” since they do not provide a good source of nutrition. Try to select whole grains such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, oats, quinoa, etc. for lasting energy. These foods naturally contain fiber, iron and B-vitamins, which are all very important nutrients.

  • Space out carbohydrates throughout the day, rather than loading up on large amounts all at one time. This helps maintain stable energy and blood sugar levels.
  • Focus on obtaining carbohydrates from real food rather than supplements.

Get Ready!
Keep snacks light before exercise. Try a granola bar, fruit, yogurt, or low-fat string cheese thirty to sixty minutes before a game or practice. Allow at least two hours after a meal before games or practice. Meals should include a variety of food groups with a particular focus on whole grains, high-fiber fruit and veggies, and lean protein. Be sure to keep portion sizes age appropriate!

Keep going!
There is a benefit to consuming carbohydrates during activity, but only if your child is exercising for more than 75 minutes at a time. Sports drinks are the most popular way to consume a quick source of carbohydrates and electrolytes during exercise. Keep in mind that these sports drinks may not be appropriate for everyday use due to calorie and sugar content.

Protein is found in animal products such as poultry, eggs, beef, pork, fish, and low-fat dairy, but can also be found in plant-based foods like nuts, seeds, beans, and soy. Try to select lean/low-fat sources of protein for good heart health.

It is recommended for athletes to follow the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for protein established by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine.

Age Range      Grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
1-3 years         1.05 grams
4-8 years         0.95 grams
9-18 years       0.85 grams
*1 pound of body weight = 2.2 kilograms

For example, if your child is 15 years old and weighs 90 pounds (40.9kg), their protein needs would be about 35g of protein/day. 

While protein is vital for the growth and repair of hard working muscles, research shows there is no added benefit to consuming excess amounts of protein. Protein should come from real food rather than dietary supplements. Space out your protein throughout the day! Aim to have a protein source with all meals and most snacks.

Hydration Guide             
Water is always best! You may also try adding fresh or frozen fruit, like sliced lemon or berries, to your child’s water to create a fun infused, flavored beverage. Another option to consider is Powerade Zero, which contains electrolytes without the added sugar of regular Gatorade. Though, water should always be your child’s go-to choice.

Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, and chloride. These minerals help with fluid balance in the body, as well as muscle function. Electrolytes can be found in our food, as well as fortified beverages.

How much should my child drink?

  • 2-4 hours pre-exercise: drink 8-16 ounces of fluid
  • Warm up: 8 ounces
  • During exercise: 8-16 ounces  (or about ½ a cup every 15 minutes)
  • Post-exercise: continue drinking ½ cup of fluid every 15 minutes

*Fluid needs may be higher depending on your child’s age and level of intensity.

Post-Workout Recovery
You did it, now let’s refuel!

In addition to replenishing fluid and electrolytes lost during exercise, it is also important to replenish carbohydrates and protein. Studies show that low-fat chocolate milk can be a good post-workout “recovery blend” due to the presence of carbohydrates, protein, calcium and potassium!

Other ideas for a post-workout snack include:

  • yogurt
  • smoothie with fruit and yogurt/milk
  • fresh fruit and ¼ cup nuts
  • ½ sandwich on whole wheat bread
  • 1 serving of whole wheat crackers and light cheese

Key Points:

  • Focus on real food to fuel your child’s active body.
  • Remember to eat regular meals throughout the day for both preparation and recovery. NEVER skip meals.
  • Timing of meals is important. Keep in mind that it takes about 3-4 hours to fully digest a regular meal.
  • Try to incorporate a variety of foods for a well-balanced diet. Aim to include at least 3 different food groups with every meal.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the entire day to stay well hydrated.