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Guide to Youth Sports Nutrition

When working with young athletes on their nutrition, we need to consider: how many carbohydrates (CHO) should they eat? Does the CHO intake for example adjust to the sport practiced? How does the taking in or expending CHO in children compare to that of adults during exercise? Should we recommend adults’ CHO intake guidelines or sport drinks? If so, should the same concentration of commercial sport drinks be used as adults? If carbohydrate supplementation in adults during prolonged exercise does enhance endurance capacity?
There are an increasing number of young athletes involved in high training loads. Proper nutritional intake is important for health and exercise performance during all ages, especially during growth. The change from childhood to adolescent and to adulthood involves important physiological and metabolic changes. Growth and the energy expenditure arising from exercise unquestionably influence the dietary needs of children and adolescent athletes with protein as the most important nutrient for growth (Montfort-Steiger 2007). However, the intake of this nutrient does not appear to be limited in young athletes.

Some nutritional surveys indicate a slight increase in the carbohydrate consumption in the last decade with male athlete’s ingestion accounting for approximately 7.6 g•kg-1 and female’s intake 5.8 g•kg-1 (Montfort-Steiger 2007). Unfortunately, there have only been a few studies on energy and CHO intake in young athletes. The few nutritional surveys in the pediatric population are cross-sectional, ranging in ages from 12 to 18 years, and without consideration on the maturity stage. Data on children athletes show that male’s CHO intake may vary between 6 and 9 g•kg-1. Females average intakes appear to be lower, around 3 to 5.5 g•kg-1.

Some key points that can be taken from these studies are:

1. Athletic girls show lower carbohydrate intakes compared to boys.

2. Children appear to have lower endogenous but greater exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rates during exercise.

3. Carbohydrate intake during exercise appears to show no additional performance improvement in young athletes. Perhaps fat intake or a combination of both nutrients may be a better approach for nutrient supplementation during exercise.

4. More research is needed in pediatric sports nutrition.

Good nutritional practices are important for exercise performance and health during all ages. Young athletes and especially growing children engaged in heavy training have higher energy and nutrient requirements compared to their non-active counterparts. Most of the sports nutrition recommendations given to athletic children and adolescents are based on adult findings due to the deficiency in age specific information in young athletes (Montfort-Steiger 2007). When looking at child specific sports nutrition, we need to compare carbohydrate intake and metabolism with the adult athlete. Children are characterized to be in an insulin resistance stage during certain periods of maturation. They have different glycolytic/metabolic responses during exercise. Children also have a tendency for higher fat oxidation during exercise and show different heat dissipation mechanisms compared to adults. These features point out that young athlete may need different nutritional advice on carbohydrate for exercise to those from adult athletes.

Why do athletes need more carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, but the body stores only limited amounts. Muscles need available carbohydrates in order to function. About 60 percent of an athlete’s diet should come from foods such as breads, cereals, pasta, rice, fruits and vegetables, and then some sweets to add additional calories. After a hard practice or game, the athlete should replenish carbohydrates within two hours for the most efficient storage.

Do athletes need protein? We all need protein, but athletes need a little more than non-athletes to build and maintain muscles that are being trained for competition. However, this does not mean a large slab of steak every night. Research suggests that most athletes need about 1.0 to1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day. This is about 75 to 100 grams of protein per day. Offer your athlete scrambled eggs for breakfast or a protein shake, 3 ounces of lunch meat in a sandwich for lunch, and 3 to 4 ounces of chicken at dinner. Snacks such as peanut butter, cheese, nuts, milk and yogurt can provide additional protein. Carbohydrate foods also offer protein in smaller amounts.

COR provides young athletes with the proper training tools to help them understand their bodies. The athletes will be assessed by using a movement analysis screening to better understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. With proper technique it is safe for a child to lift and COR helps them with injury prevention programs to keep them healthy and in their sport.


Montfort-Steiger V, Williams CA. Carbohydrate intake considerations for young athletes. J Sports Sci Med. 2007 Sep 1;6(3):343-52. 

Written by Chris Barber, CPT