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5 Tips for Understanding the Importance of Nutrition for Youth Athletes

Nutrition for youth athletes

Do you feel as if your young athlete is not improving?

Do they seem to be tired or sore days after practices or games?

Parents do their absolute best to keep up with their young athlete’s daily schedule. They are practicing, taking lessons, and competing two to six days a week.  They play multiple sports and they go to school.

Kids are always on the go.  They are like the energizer bunny! With all this energy, their bodies are burning crazy amounts of calories.  To keep up with their activities, they need to have a well-balanced nutrition plan based on the demands put on their body.

As adults, I would hope we are cautious about what we put in our bodies.  One of my favorite sayings is: “You are what you eat.” This statement is so true! If you eat crap, there’s a very good chance you will feel like crap.

All the time I hear my athletes’ parents say, “Why is my child always tired in the middle of or at the end of a practice or competition?” I ask them what they had to eat and 90% of the time, it is processed carbs and/or junk food.  The parents will say that their kids do not like all kinds of foods.  This is telling me that we are giving in to kids instead of educating them on how proper nutrition can lead to improved performance.

If your kid is not good at a certain subject in school or they hate it, do you give in and let them play video games or watch TV instead?  I hope that you would help them understand the subject so they can improve!

Proper nutrition does not begin as an adult.  This may be why childhood obesity is at its highest today!

youth soccer, nutrition for youth athletes

My Nutrition Background When I Played Sports

I will be the first to admit that I ate a lot of crap as an athlete. My healthiest meal was dinner because my amazing mother cooked the best meals on the planet. 🙂 Other than that, junk food was my best friend!

Gallons of milk, liters of soda, cupcakes, and buttery popcorn were just a few of the garbage that I used to eat. I did not care because I was so active and yet, I’m still a bean pole. I never even thought I was going to get fat from these things.

There were so many times that I would feel exhausted before and during practices and/or games.  You know what I resorted to for energy?  A nice diabetic Red Bull, sometimes two at a time.  If I had known half of what I know now about nutrition, maybe my athletic career would have been different.

After I was done playing sports, I have so many regrets.  I wish I tried harder in taking care of my body with nutrition and weight training.  I wish I listened to my parents more about what I needed to improve on instead of ignoring them and doing my own thing.  It sucks living with regrets!

I express my past failures to my young athletes all the time. If I can help just one kid do better than I did, then I will feel that my past mistakes have benefited someone else.

Here are five tips I always give when it comes to understanding the importance of nutrition for young athletes:

1. Healthy Calories = More Energy

Calorie intake is crucial for the growth and development of young athletes. The calories we put in our body helps us function during practice or competitions so we can be at our peak performance.

Think of your car: if you do not have enough gas, you are not going to go far.  Empty calories (they have no nutritional value) such as soda, fruit drinks, cheddar cheese, frozen yogurt, ice cream, fried chicken, candy, and chocolate cookies should be limited and/or avoided!

A rule of thumb to know how many calories your young athlete should have per day is to multiply their body weight by 15-20.

2. Protein Aids in Muscle Recovery

Working with mostly swimmers, I will admit that their practices demand the most of their bodies.  They train at least 10-12 hours in the pool and 2-4 hours on dry land a week. This does not include meet weekends.  With miles upon miles of swimming, their muscles break down, making them sore.

Think of their bodies as a car.  Would you give them the wrong type of gas or oil and not maintain them properly?  What is going to happen to your car if you do not take care of it?  It breaks down!  This is what is happening to your child.

I have heard coaches recommending eating only bagels during meets.  I would love to hear the reasoning behind this!  Yes, carbs supply energy for your body but they do not repair broken down muscle.  Protein repairs muscle.

A parent may say, “But my child eats chicken every day.” I ask them what other proteins they eat and they either say that is it or cheese and peanut butter.

I hate to break the bad news, but cheese and peanut butter are FATS.  Athletes need fat for energy just like carbs but they have little effect on muscle repair.  With practices and weight training, youth athletes need 1-1.2 grams of protein per lb. If your child is 100 lbs., then they need to have around 100-120 grams of protein per day.  If your kid is always tired, try it and tell me if I am wrong!

nutrition for youth athletes

Examples of Proteins:

  • Whey Protein
  • Casein Protein
  • Egg Protein
  • Soy Protein – vegetarian protein source
  • Hemp Protein – another vegetarian protein source
  • Blended Protein – combination of protein sources
  • Organic Beef (range-fed or game)
  • Chicken – Lean Chicken breast (skinless)
  • Turkey – Deli Turkey breast / Skinless Turkey breast
  • Quail
  • Duck
  • Goose
  • Emu
  • Leanest cuts of Beef Red round steaks and roasts, top loin, top sirloin and chuck shoulder and arm roasts.
  • Well-trimmed Leg of lamb
  • Bison
  • Rabbit
  • Deer / Moose / Elk / Caribou
  • Top Round Leg cutlet or Chop cuts of Veal
  • Egg whites / Egg beaters
  • Eggs
  • Tuna
  • Sardines
  • Trout
  • Salmon
  • Abalone
  • Bass (fresh water/sea)
  • Cod
  • Roe
  • Perch
  • Pollack
  • Halibut
  • Anchovy
  • Catfish
  • Mackerel
  • Flounder
  • Herring
  • Tilapia
  • Swordfish
  • Whiting
  • Grouper
  • Haddock
  • Snapper
  • Crab
  • Crayfish
  • Mussels
  • Shrimp
  • Scallops
  • Oysters (half shell)
  • Frog legs
  • Terrapin (turtle)

3. Healthy Carbs Adds Fuel to the Fire

Let us get something straight: sugary cereals, mac and cheese, bagels, donuts, instant noodles, and pizza are not healthy carbs.

I know you wonder why your child gets tired fast. It is because they are eating processed carbs and most of these are quick-acting and full of sugar and crap that spike your energy. Because of the fast burn-off, they crash hard really fast.

Donuts, pizza, and bagels are slow-acting carbs. They take longer to digest, slowly feeding the body and making you extremely lazy once your food digests.  When you have long practices or competitions, you need to have slow-acting carbs before the event. During and after practices and/or competitions you should have fast-acting carbs. This type of carbohydrate is digested faster and could give you energy spikes.

The recommended amount of carbs to feed your growing youth athlete is 3-4.5 grams per lb. of body weight.

nutrition for youth athletes

Examples of Slow-Acting Carbs:

  • Whole Wheat Pasta
  • Porridge
  • Steel Cut Oatmeal
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Brown Rice
  • Beans (black, lentils and legumes)
  • Green Vegetables
  • Fresh Fruit (Apples, Grapefruit, Oranges, Prunes, Pear, Peaches, Dried Apricots, Plums, Pears, Strawberries)
  • Low-fat Yogurt
  • Skim Milk
  • Seeds or Nuts (Almonds, Peanuts, Walnuts, Cashews, Sesame Seeds, Flaxseed, Sunflower Seeds)

Examples of Fast-Acting Carbs:

  • Fruits (Banana, Blackberries, Blackcurrants, Blueberries, Cherry, Cranberries, Grapefruit, Kiwi, Lemon, Lychee, Melon, Pineapple, Plums, Raspberries, Watermelon)
  • Vegetables (Potatoes, Carrots And Green Peas)
  • Grains (Breakfast Cereals, Instant Rice, Millet, White Boiled Rice)
  • Snacks (Rice Cakes,Chocolate, White Bread,  White Pasta, Honey, Jam)

4. Healthy Fats Provide

When some people hear fats, they honestly think they will get fat just from eating them.  Yes, you can gain weight from consuming fats if you eat too much of them but you can also gain weight from eating too much salads.

Fats are crucial for performance and health because they deliver vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to our well-tuned fighting bodies.  They have higher calories than carbohydrates and protein. They also do not get depleted during exercise like proteins and carbs.

Young athletes should consume around 65-85 grams of fat per day.

nutrition for youth athletes

Examples of Fats:

  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Nut and Seed Butters
  • Olives
  • Oils
  • Flaxseed
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Tofu
  • Edamame
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Chia Seeds
  • Eggs
  • Parmesan Cheese
  • Milk
  • Yogurt

5. Hydrate the Body for Optimal Performance

I remember what it was like to be a young athlete. So many pro athletes tell you that Gatorade, Powerade, and energy drinks are the key to success.  Did you know that these are glorified sodas?

If you look at childhood obesity, the most common culprits besides soda and fruit juices are Gatorade, Powerade, and energy drinks.  As a kid, I was not a fan of water. Drinking water throughout the day, however, keeps the body functioning properly, especially if your child is playing their sport for long periods.

Expressing to your child the importance of water is crucial for their overall health.  A good recommendation for every child is to drink at least a gallon a day.  When the hot months come, avoiding sodas, sports and energy drinks can save them from serious fatigue, dehydration, and heat exhaustion!


Times have changed since I was playing sports.  The resources we have for sports nutrition and how it can improve  athletic performance is through the roof.  If I had been properly educated in nutrition and even taken it seriously, I may have performed in sports much better and possibly gone on to the next level.

You do everything for your child including driving them to practices, games and lessons.  Do you do everything you can to properly fuel their bodies for all these activities?  Learn from my mistakes so your child does not have any regrets like me!

nutrition for youth athletes