The top priority for adolescent athletes should always be their healthy growth, development and maturation. Unfortunately, when/if intense training is combined with poor or insufficient nutrition, a decline in growth, development and maturation are usually the first symptoms, whilst performance tends to remain consistent. But, as the development and maturation decelerate, performance start to consequently show a decline also. This is the time when young athletes, their coaches and parents usually get frustrated and begin seeking explanations.
Development and maturation of young athletes is a key priority not only for their health, but also for their progression to the next stage in their training and sport and to enable them to optimize performance potential.
In order to provide all essential nutrients for growth, development, maturation and increased physical activity/training, progressive nutritional planning is essential. Appropriate ratio of carbohydrates, fats and proteins is very important and will differ depending on the athlete’s age, body composition, training schedule and sport itself. Some vitamins and minerals are also fundamental for growing bodies, therefore essential for youth athletes’ well-being.
Energy = calories
As young athletes are likely to burn a huge amount of energy at their training, they absolutely have to consume enough food (calories) to maintain their energy balance. It can be tricky to know how much food that is exactly and, in some cases, very difficult to incorporate the amount of food they need into their busy school and training schedules. This will depend on the age of your athlete, his or her’s training schedule, body composition and sport itself. One way of ensuring their adequate food intake is, they should not feel hungry or fatigued whilst training, if they complain of either of these, they are most likely under fuelled.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the muscles and brain. Essentially, any increase in training means more carbohydrates are essential to fuel this increased activity. Not consuming enough carbohydrates can cause energy decline and fatigue, what’s more, the body will begin to break down muscles for energy. Since muscle energy stores are much lower in youth than adults, the consumption of an adequate amount of carbohydrates pre, during and post exercise are imperative. And remember, carbohydrates are not just grains, fruit and vegetables are also a great source of carbohydrates and easy to incorporate into pre/during training snacking.
Protein is essential for muscle, bone, tendon and ligament maintenance. To support continuous growth, teens have higher relative (g/kg) protein needs than adults, even more so if/when a young person is training intensively, because protein is also essential for muscle repair and maintenance after exercise. Protein cannot be stored in the body; therefore, adequate daily continuous intake is important. I strongly believe in a “food first” approach and even more so for growing bodies. Meat, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, milk, yogurts are all great sources and can be implemented for anyone’s taste and preferences, a protein supplement is not necessary. Within an hour post exercise/training protein combined with carbohydrates is key for muscle recover and to top energy stores.
Fat is also an essential component of a diet of youth athlete. Fats are essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and the production of sex hormones - a key for boys’ and girls’ maturation. Fats are also used for fuel, in particular, to provide longer lasting energy when muscles have used up the available carbohydrates. Essential fatty acids Omega-3 and Omega-6 also comes from dietary fats and are crucial for healthy immune function, cellular energy production, hormone synthesis and many more vital developmental bodily functions.
Other Important Nutrients
Young athletes don’t need to supplement vitamins and minerals if the general diet is well-balanced providing a great variety of foods.
Key nutrients for growing bodies are calcium, vitamin D and iron. Since bone development is at its peak rate during adolescence, adequate calcium intake is very important. Calcium is essential for teeth, muscle contractions, nerve impulses and blood clotting. Not only dairy provides adequate calcium, canned fish with bones, green leafy vegetables soybeans, nuts, seeds and chickpeas are all great calcium rich foods to eat daily. Vitamin D goes hand in hand with Calcium as it helps the body absorb calcium and use it effectively. Vit D is also vital for immune health. Although Vitamin D is the only supplement I would recommend everyone take during the winter months, mushrooms, eggs and oily fish are foods highest in vitamin D and can be a nice vitamin D dietary boost.
Iron is essential for growth, brain development, immune system and energy production. Iron levels are more of a concern among female athletes, with increased menstrual iron losses every month. Low iron can cause fatigue, tired muscles and poor immunity. Red meat, beans, nuts, dried fruit, watercress, spring greens and broccoli are foods rich iron to incorporate into diet.
The goal of sports nutrition is to help young athletes optimise performance potential and this should be done by prioritising an athlete’s growth, development and maturation. Nutritional needs for adolescent athletes vary based on body size, training intensity, age and sex. Easy to prepare and carry food and snack choices are most appealing for busy teens, therefore education on how to choose suitable and enjoyable nutrition is central.