A big part of helping your teenage athlete achieve success is making sure they have optimal fuel in their tank to go the distance. This means planning meals and snacks around important micro and macronutrients that provide them the nutrition a young athlete needs. Feeding your teenage athlete a healthy diet can be the secret weapon making the difference between a top athlete and the rest of the field.
I first became interested in nutrition my junior year in high school while competing on our cross country running team. I wasn’t really a runner but decided to join the team after a friend encouraged me to do so. After several races, I felt I had made a mistake and perhaps I wasn’t cut out for running so I started paying more attention to my diet. I became aware of carbo loading before a big race and felt it made all the difference in the extra energy I had to finish my race strong. I later went on to run two marathons and took extra care to make sure I ate well and enough, especially after long training runs. I found success with those runs by finishing strong and never feeling like I hit the wall. By my 2nd marathon I had knocked 15 minutes off my personal best.
In my private practice when I talk with teens, I often discover young athletes are just not eating enough. If your teenage athlete is female, she is at risk of the Athlete Triad, which is syndrome that consists of amenorrhea, decreased bone mineral density and inadequate nutrient intake.
So what does a diet for an athlete look like? I have highlighted the main components; the macro nutrients and micro nutrients that are necessary for you to be feeding your teenage athlete.
Carbohydrates are in my opinion, the most important part of your teenage athlete’s diet. All carbohydrates break down to glucose. They circulate in the blood and provide energy throughout the body, including the brain. Stored glucose is called glycogen and is stored in the muscle and liver. When the body runs out of glucose during extended periods of training, it relies on stored energy, the glycogen. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Complex carbohydrates are higher in nutrients and fiber and come from whole grains, oatmeal, vegetables, fruit and milk. They break down more slowly. Simple carbohydrates such as juice break down faster for quick energy. Foods high in sugar should be limited. An endurance trainer training 1-3 hours per day, could easily require 2.7-4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound.
Protein is important to help rebuild muscle after a hard workout. I often see athletes put more emphasis on protein than carbohydrates and it should be the other way around. Your teen athlete needs on average ~15% of their total calories in protein. For a teen who needs 2000 calories, that would be 75 grams of carbohydrates, which would be equivalent to 3 glasses of milk, 4 oz of meat/chicken, 1 egg, 1 TB of peanut butter and whole grains through out the day. At the start of sports season protein needs are slightly higher to help support the muscle building that usually occurs. Protein needs will be higher if your teen athlete is involved in weight lifting during their training. Combining protein and carbohydrates for a post training snack is important to optimize recovery and repair muscle damage. Great post training snacks include 8 oz of chocolate milk, cheese and crackers, nuts and dried fruit or peanut butter on a piece of toast.
Fat is a necessity for your teenage athlete since it’s higher calorie content contains nutrients for longer lasting energy in endurance exercise. Fat also helps absorb fat soluble vitamins and provides essential fatty acids such Omega 3’s which play and important role in mental function. The majority of these fat sources should come from poly and monounsaturated fatty acids such as salmon, avocados, nuts, seeds, nut butters and olive oil. Your teenage athlete should be consuming ~ 30% of their total calories in fat.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium and Vitamin D is very important since calcium and vitamin D are the main building blocks for bones and bone growth continues throughout childhood and into early adulthood. A teen’s calcium goal is 1300 mg /day, which can be provided with 3 glasses of milk (24 oz), 1 oz cheese, ¼ cup almonds and dark green leafy vegetables. Sunlight can provide Vitamin D, but depending on where you live and what time of year, that isn’t a reliable source. Vitamin D sources include milk, yogurt, fortified orange juice, salmon and canned tuna. Teenage female athletes are at highest risk for the female athlete triad, which leads to stress fractures and low bone density resulting from a diet low in calcium and overall calories.
Iron helps transport oxygen through out the body. If your teenage athlete is deficient, they can feel tired and have low energy. Iron is most easily absorbed from heme iron sources found in all meat and fish. Vitamin C helps the absorption of non-heme iron sources found in spinach, whole grains and legumes. This is why its important to include high Vitamin C foods such as berries, citrus, tomatoes and dark leafy greens. Iron needs increase for the teenage girl to help cover menstrual loss.
Water helps to regulate your body temperature and lubricate your joints. Drinking water is the best way to stay hydrated and athletes should be drinking water before, during and after exercise. It’s a great habit to start caring around a water bottle and have it completed during the day and fill it up again before practice. If it’s hot outside, it’s important to double up. The amount of water a child needs is based on age, weight, temperature and activity level. Here is a good reference to refer to with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
All other micronutrients
Most likely, if your teenage athlete is focused on getting adequate macronutrients from complex carbohydrates, lean meats, vegetables and fruit, their micronutrient needs will be met. If they are a picky eater or a selective eater with a limited diet, this could be an area of concern and they may need to consider a multivitamin.
Overall I encourage parents to provide family meals and a kitchen stocked primarily with healthy foods. Balanced snacks that are easy to prepare and portable are especially important for your busy teenage athlete. It’ll be important to plan a snack with carbohydrates and protein before a training or practice. You as their parent are a key factor in helping them succeed by having healthy choices available. Having your teen meet with a dietitian who specializes in the needs for teenagers can also be beneficial to help them learn the importance of balanced nutrition durring their training season.
References and recommended books: Eat Like A Champion by Jill Castle, MS, RDN