With the increasing number of children and adolescents engaging in sports at an highly competitive level earlier on in life, nutrition should be an integral part of a young athlete’s training. The young athlete generally requires higher calories compared to their non-athletic peers due to their greater energy expenditure from their intense levels of physical activity.
Having a well-balanced diet with appropriate calories and sufficient hydration potentially provides the required nutrients to help minimise injuries and prolong performance. Supplementing is often not necessary if these recommendations are adhered to. For those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet or restrict food may find it challenging sticking with a well-balanced diet and deficiencies may develop.
Carbohydrates – This should account for at least 50-60% of the total daily caloric intake. This is an important fuel source for the body as it breaks carbs down into glucose which provides energy for the brain and muscles. As glycogen stores are limited in children, carb loading is not recommended as it may cause fatigue, irritability and inadequate nutrient intake and does not provide any performance benefit.
Choose wholegrains such as brown rice, whole-wheat, rolled oats, quinoa, milk, yoghurt, variety of whole fruits and colourful vegetables
Protein – Broken down into amino acids are the building blocks for your body. It is essential for hormone and enzyme production, transferring nutrients in the blood, builds and repairs muscles, tissues and cartilages. Protein intake should be slightly higher than non-athletic peers at 1.2g-1.7g/kg of body weight per day. Protein should be satisfied through diet and supplementation is not required. Excess protein intake can increase the risk of dehydration and cause calcium loss.
Choose fresh red and white meats, fresh fish, milk, cheese, yoghurt, eggs, tofu, soya beans, quinoa, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds
Fat – Is essential for proper functioning of the body. It produces energy, protects vital organs, provides insulation and facilitates absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. It helps with synthesis of cholesterol and other hormones. Essential fatty acids can only be provided through diet and it is important for brain development, inflammation and blood clotting. Fat intake should be 25-30% of total calories, no more than 30% and no less than 15%.
Choose oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado
Vitamins and minerals essential for the health and functioning of the human body. It plays an important role in bone health, blood volume, hormone activity, immune system and energy production.
Choose a well-balanced diet with variety including foods from all food groups
For training shorter than 60 minutes less water to rehydrate is sufficient. For longer durations then choosing a flavoured drink with 6% carbohydrate is recommended. Children are prone to dehydration during exercise increasing risk of fatigue. They also have a greater surface area ratio to body weight so they absorb more heat. Drink 10-12 cups of water daily to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance. Drink 2 cups of water 2-3 hours prior to training is beneficial. During training drink ½ to 1 cup every 20mins. For recovery, drink 2.5 cups for every ½kg lost.
Ensure Good Eating Habits
Parents and coaches of young athletes should take an active positive role ensuring adequate nutritional requirements are met and understanding increases in energy expenditure. Estimating energy requirements for young athletes can be challenging as they transition through childhood and adolescence. The unpredictable onset of growth spurts, preference for fat oxidation instead of glucose and inefficiency to thermoregulate while exercising is different to adult athletes. Not having sufficient energy intake for prolonged periods can result in short stature, delayed puberty, poor bone health, menstrual irregularities or absence in females, and increased risk of injuries.
Encourage good eating habits and avoid attention on body shape and weight and to instil lifelong healthy habits in the child.
If your child or adolescent is in a sport which requires low body weight or lean body shape please seek guidance from a healthcare professional as this practice can increase the risk for energy deficiency, menstrual irregularities or absence, bone health and eating disorders.
Dietary and Sports Supplements
As with most young athletes training at competitive levels comes with experiences of significant pressure to set high performance goals. To help them stay competitive they feel the need to turn to supplements. A study on young Canadian athletes reported an astounding 98% use of dietary supplements making it one of the highest rate of users. While it is suspected that the broad definition of dietary supplement which includes, not limited to, protein bars, sports drinks, vitamin-infused water, energy drinks and plant extracts could explain the high rate.
Studies on young athletes reported reasons they consumed dietary supplements include:
- Increase energy levels
- Enhance performance
- Build strength
- Inadequate diet - In which they were influenced by either family/friend/teammate
Young athletes who chose to supplement for performance-related reasons would use protein powders, amino acid supplements, creatine, sports bars and energy drinks. While they believe there is a link between these dietary supplements and enhanced performance outcome, it is only effective in the case of a deficiency, illness or food restriction. There is little evidence to support these dietary supplements in optimising sports performance in young athletes.
The American Academy of Paediatrics does not recommend the use of dietary supplements in young athletes under the age of 18 years. As children and adolescents are growing and developing, supplements may interfere with their growth. Side effects on their not yet fully developed body is unknown. Testing of supplements are not conducted on children or adolescents so the efficacy on this age group is unknown. The U.S Food and Drug Administration does not make testing on all supplements mandatory so quality control will be lacking. Make sure the brand you choose participates in third party testing of all their products. The FDA is not authorised to review the safety and effectiveness of supplements before they are marketed, this is up to the company. This is why engaging in a brand that allows a standalone independent testing facility is important.
Protein powders and amino acid supplements are not recommended as you should be getting it from your diet alone. Please seek guidance from a healthcare professional if you diet is restricted to address deficiencies.
Energy drinks were also correlated with performance to increase energy, muscle mass and strength. However, energy drinks are contraindicated for those under 18 years old. A few side effects include gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, headaches and insomnia.
Creatine is one supplement that has been widely studied for the adult athlete. It is associated with muscle mass and strength, endurance and overall athletic performance.
The International Society of Sports only deem creatine supplementation acceptable if the athlete is past puberty, eating a well-balanced diet, competing at a high level, has parental consent, supervised by a qualified professional and uses appropriate doses.
Carbohydrate-electrolyte combination is recommended to be consumed during training to delay fatigue, improve performance and prolong endurance exercise. Carbohydrate intake during training for young athletes need to meet the recommendation of 30-60g/hour to maintain blood sugar. The concern for young athletes with the regular use of sports drinks, gummies and gel is the excess calories from the added sugar increasing risk of obesity and dental hygiene. Where possible use a straw or a squeeze bottle to drink or rinse your mouth with water when finished eating to avoid dental issues. Intake should be monitored and consumption during training.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A mother of two based in Singapore for over 10 years, Debbie O’Neill is an Australian registered Nutritionist with a focus on clinical nutrition. With the intent to alleviate her allergies and make well-educated decisions for her children and family, Debbie decided to take the steps required to pursue a career as a Nutritionist.
Debbie’s mantra is to make it easy for people to achieve good health through diet with fresh, wholesome foods and simple lifestyle changes.