Sports nutrition for the young athlete

Sports nutrition for the young athlete

Leslie Cox, RD

Is a highly regarded dietitian at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. She is also an active and competitive athlete as well, participating in triathlons and races throughout the country. Sports Nutrition.

Article in collaboration with: Dr. Stan Cohen, MD

Approximately 38 million youths between 6 and 18 years of age participate in organized sports in the U.S.   Unfortunately, many of these young athletes are bombarded with different messages about nutrition from the media, coaches, teammates, and even professional athletes.  Some of these messages focus on fad diets and false claims. This misinformation can even be harmful leaving kids vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies and poor athletic performance. 

The Goal 

Sports participation increases energy and nutrient demands on children and teens, during their time of critical growth and development. When they are just starting to play their sport(s), everyone wants the kids to eat well enough that they have the energy and stamina to play and stay healthy. But as some progress and become elite athletes, the goal changes with nutrition seen as another way to improve performance. "Eat better and you will play better," becomes the theme.     

In both situations, as youngsters starting out and then as performance-driven athletes, kids require a balanced diet providing appropriate amounts of calories, protein, vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrate. They must consume enough calories to fuel their normal needs including growth and their exercise. The energy and protein needs depend on the level and type of physical activity they engage in, as well as their physical development. Height and weight measurements should be monitored regularly in young athletes to ensure adequate physical growth. 

Key Nutrients Are Particularly Important to the Athlete 

  • Carbohydrates as the preferred energy source for muscle and the only source for the brain
  • Protein helps build, maintain, and repair muscles and other body tissues. But too much can present more problems
  • Fluids to maintain hydration and cool the body
  • Calcium to maintain bone health
  • Iron for adequate oxygen delivery to the cells

A Special Area of Concern for Girls

Physically active adolescents whose caloric intake is not adequate to provide theenergy needed to participate in physical activity are at risk for weight loss. This can lead to menstrual irregularities, or a loss of periods, which can lead to premature bone loss and increased risk of stress fractures.  This condition is known as Female Athletic Triad.  

It is important to identify and treat adolescents suffering from the Female Athletic Triad early because bone loss may be only partially reversible.  Adolescents who develop symptoms such as excessive weight loss, irregular menstrual periods, or frequent injuries (including stress fractures) should be evaluated by a health care provider familiar with this condition.

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