Apr 5, 2018, 9:30:48 AM CDT Feb 2, 2023, 4:41:52 PM CST

Nutrition and sports performance: What young athletes should eat to perform their best

How eating a healthy, balanced diet may boost athletic performance

Young athlete sitting in the grass eating a bowl of colorful fruit Young athlete sitting in the grass eating a bowl of colorful fruit

Many families already know the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet. But if your child or teen is an athlete performing at a high level on a regular basis, you may have additional concerns about their nutrition and dietary needs.

Get answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about what young athletes should eat to power their performance.

Is there a recommended diet for young athletes

There is no 'one-size-fits-all' plan when it comes to nutrition. Individual nutrient needs vary by sport, type, and intensity of the activity, age, body size, goals and training volume. Generally speaking, the more intense the activity and the more hours you train, the higher your carbohydrate and overall calorie needs will be.

Meeting with a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) for a personalized consultation is the best way for young athletes to determine their specific, appropriate amount of calories and nutrients to eat each day.

Is there a certain amount of protein that young athletes should be eating each day?

Depending on their goals, training status and type of activity, athletes need anywhere from ½ to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. A sports dietitian is the best resource to help you determine the right amount of protein that your star athlete needs.

As a general rule, young athletes can meet their daily protein needs by making sure to include a source of lean protein such as eggs, milk, yogurt, nuts, nut butter, beans, lentils, tofu, chicken or fish at each meal and snack.

How can eating a healthy diet help athletes lower their risk of injury and perform better?

Eating a healthy diet ensures that an athlete is getting all the nutrients their body needs to produce energy and create new muscle tissue, enzymes and other cellular structures involved in energy metabolism. Proper nutrition can also help repair damage from training as well as everyday wear and tear, and keeps the body's muscles, bones, joints, tendons and organs functioning optimally.

Tips to ensure young athletes are getting enough nutrients

Young athletes should be eating five or six balanced meals and snacks each day, and should be eating every three hours. Each meal should include a balance of complex carbs, lean protein, healthy fat, fruits and vegetables. Each snack should include a combination of all three macronutrients: complex carbs, lean proteins and healthy fats.

If your athlete has any food allergies or intolerances, work with a registered dietitian to make sure they are appropriately filling any "gaps" in their diet created by eliminating foods or food groups.

Are there certain foods that young athletes should be specifically eating?

The following healthy choices are recommended for young athletes:

  • Whole grains and other complex carbohydrates (oats, brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread, whole grain breakfast cereals, sweet potatoes, squash and beans)
  • Fruits (2 to 4 servings per day)
  • Vegetables (3 to 5 servings per day)
  • Lean proteins (chicken, fish, beans/lentils, tofu, eggs, yogurt and milk)
  • Healthy fats (nuts, nut butter, seeds, olive oil and avocado)

See more ideas for healthy snacks and lunches to fuel a young athlete's performance.

Tips for developing healthy eating habits

Parents can encourage healthy eating behaviors in children by first modeling those desired behaviors. Children mimic the behaviors of the adults in their lives. Therefore, if you want your child to eat healthy, work to set a good example.

Eat family meals together as often as possible. Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of eating, so do your part by planning healthy meals and snacks at set, regular meal and snack times. Encourage eating at the table as a family and not in front of the TV, while distracted or in the car. As long as parents do their part – the what, when and where of feeding – children are responsible for deciding how much to eat and whether or not to eat at all.

Make eating a pleasant and positive experience. Introduce new or healthy foods to your child in a fun and positive way and never nag children or make negative comments about a child's eating habits. This only makes things worse. Offer, but don't force. The more you pressure your child to eat a certain food, the less likely your child will be to eat that food. On the other hand, the more you restrict certain foods, it's more likely your child will want that food.

Learn more

The specially trained pediatric sports performance experts at Children's Health Andrews Institute Sports Performance powered by EXOS can help your young athlete perform at his or her best while remaining healthy and thriving. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

Screen capture of Gut Health Digest signup

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the Performance Playbook newsletter.

Children's Health will not sell, share or rent your information to third parties. Please read our privacy policy.

Sign up for Performance Playbook

Receive the latest advice from our orthopedic and sports performance specialist -- right in your inbox. Sign up for Performance Playbook, the monthly newsletter from Children's Health Andrews Institute.

athlete, diet, exercise, injury prevention, nutrition, physical fitness, sports, sports injury, sports medicine

Childrens Health