Teen Athlete Guide to Proper Nutrition and Supplements
There’s something unique about the teenage season of life, especially when you bring athletics into the picture.
Beyond the social pressures that young teens are navigating as they leap from adolescence to adulthood, there are often uncomfortable changes in their bodies.
Athletics add additional expectations regarding athletic performance, physical growth, and setting personal goals and aspirations to the already complex lives of teenagers.
Teen athletes are in the era of figuring out what’s next for their athletic career and fueling their bodies to achieve remarkable physical accomplishments, all while navigating puberty and hormonal changes.
In order to perform effectively, active teenagers must have a different set of nutritional and mental health needs than their less-active peers.
Higher levels of activity require a greater calorie intake to meet their energy needs and performance goals, but how should teens be fueling their bodies?
What does a balanced diet for a young athlete look like? What happens when athletes don’t eat enough?
Let’s talk about how you can set up young athletes to perform well on and off the field.
What are the nutritional challenges teen athletes face?
Since teen athletes are more active than their sedentary peers, they require a higher calorie intake.
The additional calories provide enough energy to fuel their bodies during practices, games, and workouts.
Not having enough “gas in the tank” could lead to the following issues:
An athlete feeling sluggish, weak, and unable to perform at their peak level.
An athlete that is more susceptible to injuries and slower recovery times.
Athlete burnout and lack of motivation.
Modern teens are facing nutritional issues that range from anemia to obesity. All of this boils down to one commonality: malnutrition.
Exposure to healthy nutrition and a safe food environment are good places to start when supporting young athletes and their relationships with food.
Teaching them about their bodies and what types of foods fuel them for greatness creates a “teach a man to fish” complex.
This will help young athletes become autonomous in providing adequate nutrition to their bodies later in their lives.
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What nutrients are most important, and are there differences between boys and girls?
Before breaking down the specific nutrients that teen athletes should be consuming each day, it's important to note the overall caloric needs of a young athlete.
Each athlete is unique. They have different body compositions, ethnicities, heights, weights, and fitness goals.
Each of these elements impacts the nutrition needs of an athletic teen.
That said, below are the general calorie requirements for female and male athletes:
Female teen athletes need approximately 2,200-3,000 calories per day to maintain their weight and provide enough additional energy to perform well.
Male teen athletes should aim to consume between 3,000-4,000 calories per day to achieve the same goals.
An athlete that participates in multiple sports or is trying to learn to play sports at a more competitive level may have even higher caloric needs.
Beyond teens’ fast metabolism—which burns calories simply by doing day-to-day activities—athletes need additional energy to strengthen and grow their bodies and assist with high levels of cardiovascular activity.
The amount of change that happens in a young person’s body during their teenage years is a marvel of its own.
Young athletes that don't consume enough calories or nutrients are susceptible to the following problems:
Irregular menstruation (in the case of female athletes)
Disordered eating habits
Unhealthy eating patterns can cause burnout for a growing young adult.
Proper nutrition, on the other hand, makes it possible for teen athletes to unlock their potential and take their athleticism to the next level.
This is why teens need to know about proper nutrition.
Let’s break down the nutrients that young teens should pay attention to.
Protein is important for muscle growth, but it's not the only nutrient that contributes to strengthening the body.
When athletes exercise, the muscles being worked experience tiny micro-tears. This is what makes athletes sore the day after long runs or exhausting training sessions.
Proteins in the body are composed of amino acids that repair and fuse these tiny micro-torn muscle fibers.
When the muscle fibers are replicated and fused, the muscles grow larger and stronger as a whole.
This protein synthesis is what creates strong athletes that can perform and grow at higher levels.
How much protein should a teen athlete have each day?
Dietary protein intake is important in repairing torn muscles and overall growth.
As a rule of thumb, female and male teen athletes should aim to eat between 0.5-0.7g of protein for each pound of body weight that they have.
For example, a 110-pound athlete should aim to eat approximately 55-60g of protein per day.
When should protein be consumed?
Protein is effective in supplying nutrition to the body at any time, but the ideal times to do so are before a workout and immediately following a workout.
These are the time frames in which the body is primed for muscle protein synthesis and the replenishing of glycogen stores.
Teen athletes should have a snack to eat just after finishing up their workout, ideally within 30-60 minutes after its completion.
Some high-protein options that athletes could eat include the following:
Young athletes should fill up about 1/4 of their plates with a protein source for each meal.
Carbohydrates are the star of the show when it comes to nutritional needs for both male and female athletes.
Carbohydrates are the primary energy provider for athletic performance and are an essential macronutrient that supports growth.
During exercise, glycogen found in carbohydrates is broken down, providing long-lasting energy for anything from a lifting session at the gym to a long-distance run.
According to studies performed at Colorado State University, carbohydrates should take up about 50% of a teen athlete’s diet.
This equates to approximately 360-500g of carbohydrates daily.
These carbohydrates are best split up between 2 snacks and 3 meals per day.
This percentage is especially important for multi-sport athletes or those that perform endurance sports, such as running.
Multi-sport teen athletes may need up to a 65% carbohydrate calorie total incorporated into their diet.
What are the problems with a low-carb diet?
Diet restriction is not a good idea for teen athletes.
Beyond the mental health implications and disordered eating habits that could potentially arise from restricting carbs, a low-carb diet is also not ideal for physical performance.
Low-carb diets could leave an athlete feeling sluggish, low on energy, and weak.
This could both hinder athletic performance and contribute to injuries.
Are sugary carbohydrates good for teen athletes?
Sugary foods and energy drinks may seem like promising options to provide a burst of energy, but these short-lived calories will result in a sugar crash when blood sugar takes a nose dive.
Looking to complex carbohydrate options is better for more sustainable, longer-lasting energy.
Examples of complex carbohydrates for teen athletes include the following:
Whole wheat bread
Whole grain cereal (no sugar added)
Ideally, carbohydrates should be high in fiber and include whole grains and B vitamins.
3. Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are also incredibly important in the proper development of teen athletes and in maintaining a healthy diet.
Specifically, calcium and iron should be considered when writing out a grocery list or packing food for the day.
Calcium is a crucial mineral for strong bones to protect teen athletes from stress fractures or other injuries.
Bone development is important in protecting and fortifying the body from serious injury.
Calcium, therefore, needs to be consumed generously.
The following dairy products are excellent high-calcium snacks:
Iron is responsible for carrying oxygen to the muscles, which is essential for normal bodily functions and athletic performance.
High-iron foods that can help prevent iron deficiency include the following:
Lean meats such as beef
Organ meats such as liver
Leafy green vegetables
There are 6 essential nutrients that need to be consumed throughout a day’s meals, but these are just a few that are commonly overlooked.
Consider asking for insight from your sports medicine provider or sports dietician for more information regarding proper nutrition for teenage athletes.
What are some healthy snacks for teen athletes?
Eating a diverse, balanced diet is crucial to meeting the nutritional needs of athletes.
Athletes should try to eat multiple times a day to pack in their daily nutritional intake.
Let’s look at some nutritious snacks that could help athletes close the gap on their caloric threshold:
Peanut butter on toast
Cream cheese on a bagel
Hummus paired with veggies
Whole grain/oat bars
When choosing your teen athlete's snacks, try to stick to whole foods as much as possible.
A well-rounded snack pairs fat, carbohydrates, and protein together.
This combination helps to properly fuel athletes and aids in avoiding processed grab-and-go snacks.
By eating whole foods, teen athletes will notice that these well-rounded snack options leave them feeling fuller for longer.
Watch the video below for more information on teen athlete nutrition:
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Are supplements beneficial for teenage athletes?
In general, protein powder and other protein supplement options are not equal substitutes for getting protein from real foods.
No dietary supplements, including protein powders (even plant-based protein powders), are regulated by the FDA.
Protein powders often contain levels of heavy metals and the endocrine disruptor BPA, according to a study performed by the Denver-based Clean Label Project.
Many sports supplements interfere with hormone balance, which can impact testosterone levels and mental health and lead to other unwanted side effects.
Some even mimic anaerobic steroids, causing hormone disruption.
These sports supplements also have not been tested on individuals under the age of 18, so the risks that could impact adolescent athletes have not been researched thoroughly enough to verify their safety.
This is a major red flag.
The idea “food first, supplements second” is a good rule of thumb when considering adding supplemental essential nutrients to a teen athlete's diet.
If adolescent athletes are interested in supplement regimens anyway, there are sports drink options that could help regulate electrolyte balance during or after a workout.
Beyond that, looking into vitamin and mineral supplements may be the only other beneficial option.
Reaching out to a sports medicine professional or sports dietician will help teen athletes find the supplements that are right for them.
Today’s teenage athlete has a lot to think about, and the relationship between sports performance and proper nutrition often isn’t on their mind.
Nutrition and proper fueling affect muscle growth, bone development, and injury prevention.
Beyond that, what young athletes learn is healthy as adolescents will translate into healthy habits in the future.
Setting the groundwork for a healthy relationship with food is important for athletic performance and general well-being.
Thalia Oosthuizen has been writing in a professional capacity for over a decade. Her love for sports has led her down the path of sports writing, where her passion and skills combine. Thalia is a runner, cyclist, and swimmer, and enjoys playing tennis and hockey. Her favorite sports teams include Chelsea F.C. and the Georgian Lions Rugby Club.