What You Should Know About Nutrition for Young Athletes
By Melissa Wickes
August 1, 2023
We’re all familiar with the age-old stereotype that teenage boys cannot stop eating. The thing is, though, there’s usually a reason for that. They probably need the fuel.
Picture this: your son or daughter is waking up at 7am for school, grabs a cereal bar that ultimately ends up crushed at the bottom of their bag, has cafeteria lunch at 10am, and doesn’t eat again until dinner time. Somewhere in between that time, they’re going to sports practice or a game. It’s not enough food—and your kids are hungry, tired, irritable, and not performing their best in sport.
Poor nutrition is a serious problem in youth sports, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what supplements can be taken to correct the problem. In reality, the best fix is just eating right.
Linzy Ziegelbaum is a Registered Dietitian, the founder of SportsNutrition4Kids.com, and a mother to two young boys. She works with families and young athletes to help them maximize performance through their diet, and is expanding her work to offer specialized nutrition for young athletes.
We spoke with her to set the record straight on youth nutrition and how it relates to performance in sport—here’s what we discussed.
What role does nutrition for young athletes play in performance?
Even outside of sports nutrition is so important. Athletes need even more, Linzy explains. A lot of it falls on the parents and coaches and less on the child, so they need to understand the way children grow and not accidentally restrict a child’s intake. This impacts their growth, their energy level, and their performance.
Conversely, some children may not recognize the difference between hunger and fullness yet—so helping serve them a plate that is the right amount of food can help with this.
Coaches, parents, and youth sports leaders should consider what kids eat, their meal timing, macronutrients, proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals, and hydration when paying attention to nutrition for youth sports performance.
What small changes can players make to their nutrition to improve performance?
Kids will eat what is available to them, and if it’s not a well-rounded snack, they’re likely going to go to the vending machine and grab something high in sugar. The alternative is that they don’t eat at all.
Not eating from lunchtime until after school, which many kids do, and then going straight to sports practice is not sufficient—especially not for sports performance. This is where parents, coaches, or youth sports organizers can step in and provide snacks that are fuel—like fruit, nuts, and other healthy options. Encourage snacking and ensure that no child is going from 10am-7pm without eating!
How can youth sports leaders implement nutrition for young athletes in their programs?
Your role as a leader in youth sports is to help your players get the best experience possible—and good nutrition will help them do exactly that. Learn what breakdown of carbs, proteins, and fats your players should be consuming each day and communicate that to your team. Different sports require different fuel and different kids need different fuel.
Similarly, using the right language when discussing nutrition in your youth sports organization is crucial, especially with eating disorders on the rise. Linzy suggests using neutral language to describe foods rather than calling certain foods “good” or “bad.” Also, avoid associating size with performance like “if you were smaller you’d be faster.” That’s not necessarily true and can be extremely harmful for young kids.
Also, the fuel a kid needs for a tournament may be drastically different than what they need during the off season.
Sports Nutrition 4 Kids is now offering 1:1 counseling for athletes as well as blogs and team seminars on nutrition. For more information on how Linzy can help your organization improve player nutrition, click here.