Proper nutrition plays a crucial role for young athletes. In addition to impacting their performance, training and energy, it can also impact recovery from injury. Nutritional and energy needs vary as the young athlete grows. Prior to puberty, energy needs of males and females are the same. Afterwards, males tend to have higher energy needs to account for growth spurts and increased energy expenditure during activity.
Carbohydrates are the most important source of energy and should comprise 45-65% of an athlete’s diet. Protein plays a role in building and maintaining of muscle in addition to providing energy in endurance activity through liver gluconeogenesis. Protein should make up 10-30% of the diet. Both protein and carbohydrates have 4 kilocalories per gram. Fat is more calorie-dense, with 9 kilocalories per gram, and is crucial for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, protecting vital organs and insulation. Fat should comprise 25-35% of a diet with no more than 10% coming from saturated fats.
Three micronutrients of concern in young athletes are calcium, vitamin D and iron. Calcium requirements for 4-8 year olds are 1000mg/day and increase to 1300mg/day in 9-18 year olds. Calcium is crucial in maintaining good bone health. Vitamin D aids the absorption of calcium and 600 IU should be taken daily. Iron plays a role in the delivery of oxygen to tissues in the body. Males and females that are 9-13 years of age should take in 8mg/day of iron. This increases to 11mg/day in males and 15mg/day in females from age 14 onwards. Athletes at risk of having low iron − and those that should be screened − include endurance athletes, female athletes and vegetarians.
Fluid requirements are impacted by an athlete’s age and size. If activity will last less than 1 hour, 400-600ml of water should be consumed 2-3 hours prior to activity. During activity, 150-300ml of water should be consumed every 15-20 minutes. If activity is longer than 1 hour or if weather conditions are hot or humid, sport drinks can be consumed to help replace fluid and electrolytes. Meals should be eaten at least 3 hours prior to activity and should incorporate carbohydrates, protein and fat while limiting fibre. If events are occurring early in the day, snacks can be consumed 1-2 hours before exercise followed by a full meal after the event. To help aid with recovery, food should be eaten within 30 minutes of cessation of activity and again in 1-2 hours. This should include carbohydrates and protein.