Sports Nutrition For Teenage Athletes

  Jun 23, 2020  |  #Sports Nutrition

Searching for a teenage athlete meal plan? Or wondering how to meet nutrition goals for teenage athletes? I interview sports dietitian and adolescent nutrition expert, Heather Mangieri, to answer your questions!

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While I’m passionate about sports nutrition and fueling, I wouldn’t say I specialize in nutrition for teenage athletes. I do tend to get random requests for a teenage athlete meal plan here and there, and they always take a lot of time because of the factors involved.

Adolescents and teenagers have varying nutrition needs as they are still developing, going through puberty and growing. 

teenagers running on track with text overlay

It’s crucial to provide nourishment to meet those growing needs and demands!

Many of the snack and meal ideas in this roundup of pre and post workout ideas for athletes are applicable as healthy lunches for teenage athletes or even healthy snacks for teenage athletes. But, I also wanted to put something more substantial together in terms of adolescent athlete nutrition for teenage athletes. 

So, I decided to interview a teenage athlete Sports Dietitian, Heather Mangieri, RD, CSSD, to share more information about the teenage athlete diet and what is most important during this period of growth.

Heather Mangieri sitting behind computer

Heather is the author of Fueling Young Athletes, which breaks down the nutrition needs of young athletes and explains what the latest research suggests. 

What Makes Child and Teen Athlete Nutrition So Different From Adults?

HM: Young athletes are not little adults- not physically, physiologically, mentally nor emotionally. Knowing that they have different needs is the first step.

The biggest difference is that, unlike adult athletes, young athletes are still growing and developing. They need nutrition to support normal growth and development, as well as the extra food and fluid to support their sport and training.

highschool cross country meet getting ready to start

As a general rule of thumb, the calories for teenage athletes are generally higher than their non-athletic counterparts and older athletes. But, figuring out just what their needs are is a lot more challenging than determining that of adults that are done growing. And, it changes throughout the adolescent period.

In addition to the physiological changes they face, young athletes are also dealing with the physical, emotional and social challenges that happen occur during adolescence.

When thinking about nutrition for teenage athletes, younger athletes need to prioritize their day-to-day nutrition first. Eating a perfectly calculated pre-or-post workout meal won’t do a young athlete much good if their day-to-day nutrient needs are insufficient.

What Are Some of the Challenges That Child and Teen Athletes Face In Terms of Nutrition and Fueling?

HM: Children are starting competitive sports at a much younger age now, and the demands and expectations are much greater than they used to be.

two players kicking a soccer ball

Putting those demands on a child that is not developmental ready can have devastating effects, not only to growth, development and performance, but to their self-esteem. These demands can also impact fueling decisions.

In terms of nutrition and fueling, there are two main challenges.

Firstly, their needs can vary widely, based on their stage of development. That makes it more difficult to determine their needs.

The term “young athletes’ encompasses a wide range of athletes. What a 10-year old pre-pubertal athlete needs to consume is much different than what a 17-year old highly trained male athlete needs, even if they spend the same amount of time at training. Athletes come in all shapes, sizes & training levels.

Girl holding basketball in front of basketball hoop

The other big challenge for younger athletes is their schedule. Between school, homework, practice, events and family obligations, it can be extremely difficult to eat right and consistently.

As a sports dietitian, I spend a lot of my time helping families figure plan quick and easy meals that are portable, and healthy.

What Nutrients Are Most Important During Growth Periods? Are There Key Differences Between Genders?

HM: This is a huge topic, and honestly, the reason that I wrote my book. Understanding the nutritional needs during growth and development is extensive. Especially when considering how they differ between male and female athletes during growth periods. 

Children and teenagers begin puberty at varying ages and experience growth periods throughout the adolescent years.

Before puberty, nutrient needs are similar for males and females. Once puberty hits, however, there is a big difference in the nutritional needs of males and females, especially in terms of calories.

All nutrients are important, but some that are especially important during growth periods include nutrition that support:

  • energy production
  • bone health
  • muscular development
  • reproductive health

Calcium and Vitamin D

The adolescent period is a critical time for bone development, so it’s important for teenage athletes to get the recommended intakes for all of the bone supporting nutrients.

There are many nutrients that play a role in bone development, but calcium and vitamin D are two that I focus on a lot. I find that many athletes fall short in getting adequate amounts, and need help figuring out how to meet their needs.

Iron

Iron is another key nutrient for athletes. Though iron deficiency doesn’t happen overnight, it will impact performance and daily functions.

Iron deficiency can lead to decreased endurance capacity and can negatively impact productivity. Here is an extensive write up on iron

Changes During Puberty

HM: The majority of the teenage athletes I see come to me with concerns. These concerns include repeated bone fractures, low energy, gastrointestinal issues and slow weight gain. All of these challenges can be impacted by nutrition.

During puberty, the body can change quite significantly. Males and females can face different struggles with their growing bodies. The changes that occur can affect how they look and feel about themselves, especially as they compare themselves to their teammates.

runners on track

Helping teenage athletes understand these changes and how nutrition can play a role is monumental. It helps them feel better as they go through it.

It’s also important to know that nutrition for teenage female athletes is different than nutrition for teenage male athletes. 

What Are Some Easy Snack Options for Parents To Make or  Bring To Kids’ Sports and Activities?

HM: Snacks are important for children, but they don’t necessarily need one after a sporting practice. A post-activity or recovery snack is beneficial after exhaustive exercise, but not all kids are participating in sports or training at that level.

All kids will benefit from post-exercise hydration, followed by a healthy meal.

Salmon with vegetables on plate

If it will be a while until an athlete will get home to eat, a healthy snack after practice can help hold a child athlete over until they can eat a full meal.

But, it’s important to be strategic and include foods that provide beneficial nutrients, not just empty calories. A few easy options are:

Make ahead breakfast options can be very helpful, too!

What Are Some Healthy Snacks for Teenage Athletes?

HM: As the duration and intensity of sports training increases, the importance of recovery nutrition grows, too. Therefore, teenage athletes have different nutrition needs than child athletes.

A good snack should contain both carbohydrates and protein, as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals.  Teenagers have higher calorie needs than kids, and their training tends to be more involved. 

The snacks can be the same, they just might need a larger portion. Here are a few examples:

  • Fruit and protein smoothie (this sweet potato beet smoothie provides lots of nutrition!)
  • Full peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Turkey sandwich
  • Fruit & nuts
  • Greek yogurt with fruit 
  • 8 ounces of chocolate milk

healthy postworkout meals for teenage athletes, including chocolate milk, smoothie, pb&j and greek yogurt

It’s also important that there are consistent healthy meals for teenage athletes being consumed. While many teens may be able to prepare easy meals, having the parents on board is very helpful. 

Undereating and underfueling can lead to a slew of problems, like relative energy deficiency. 

If you need meal prep tips for athletes or families, learning how to simplify meal prep is a life saver. 

Are There Situations Where Supplements or Protein Powders Would Be Recommended for Teenage Athletes?

One of the main questions I get is, “What is the best protein powder for a teenage athlete?” Some of the protein powders I like personally are:

I also happen to think that some of the best protein shakes for teenage athletes are those that include whole foods and sources of protein, like yogurt and dairy milk (or a plant-based milk alternative with protein, like pea or soy milk). 

orange mango smoothie with cara cara oranges in wine glasses | Bucket List Tummy

But, I’ll let Heather answer this question in regards to teenage specific needs. 

HM: It’s important for teen athletes to get all of the recommended nutrients they need each day. In general, teenage athletes are eating enough food to meet their vitamin and mineral needs.

Some athletes, though, may struggle to meet their needs for specific nutrients. In those instances, taking a supplement can help.

Athletes that follow special diets, have food allergies, or are picky eaters, are some examples of whom might benefit from a supplement.

For example, athletes that avoid dairy products may not be getting adequate calcium and vitamin D, so getting those in a supplement form can help. Vitamin supplements for teenage athletes should never be used in replacement of eating a balanced diet.

Most athletes are getting more than enough protein to support their growth, development and training, but in some instances, protein powders can be used to boost protein or for convenience.  

How Much Protein Do Teenage Athletes Need?

Protein intake for teenage athletes can vary depending on their body size, the sport they are competing in, their goals and more.  

scoop of chocolate protein powder

The range is generally 1.2 grams per kg of body weight on the lower end of the spectrum. And, 1.4-1.7 grams per kg of body weight on the higher end of the spectrum. 

Vegetarian or vegan athletes, or those who don’t eat enough protein, can use plant-based protein powders to help meet their needs. Protein powder can be added to smoothies or milkshakes to balance the nutrition, especially for teenage athletes that have to prepare their own meals or are traveling away from home.

Meal plans for athletes and teenagers can be inclusive of these considerations. 

An important consideration is that it is best to meet 1-1 with a dietitian for personal recommendations for the best protein supplement for teenage athletes (or your teenage athlete) before just adding these to your routine. 

What Can Parents Do To Ensure Their Children Are Fueling Properly?

HM: Parents can help by providing and encouraging healthy food options. Young athletes rely on their parents to purchase food, so that it is available when they need it.

healthy bag of groceries on countertop

If parents are concerned about their child’s nutrition, or have questions on how to ensure proper fueling, they should reach out to a dietitian that is trained in working with children, and young athletes for help.

Getting the right guidance from the beginning is the best way to ensure that children are properly fueled throughout the adolescent period.

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