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Young Athletes: 4 Common Nutrition Questions and Answers

young athletes playing soccer

What’s the best protein bar? Should young athletes eat pasta before the game? How much protein do young athletes need?

I get sports nutrition questions all the time. There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to young athletes and their sport because the world talks a bunch about adult sports nutrition. Naturally, parents hear that information and start applying it to their young athlete.

The problem is, some of these adult tenets don’t work well with the child or adolescent. Although parents may implement them, there’s often a shadow of doubt or discomfort lingering.

If you’re a parent of a young athlete, you may have nutrition questions about the best approach for her. I’m clearing up the confusion on four of the most common questions I hear about youth sports nutrition, and giving you the answers.

Clear up the confusion of feeding young athletes. 4 common questions answered here! Click To Tweet

Is Regular Food Good Enough for a Young Athlete?

As the food industry for engineered sports foods and supplements has grown, so has the idea that regular food isn’t good enough. What manufacturers cannot duplicate in food products is the blend and concentrations of a variety of nutrients and how they uniquely interact with each other, and in the body.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that suggests better sports performance in children and teens when extra vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are added to the diet in the form of multivitamins or single nutrients, taken alone, or engineered in food.

Bottom Line: Real food is good enough for the young athlete.

Want New Snack Ideas for Your Athlete? Click Here!

Can Young Athletes Eat Anything They Want (& As Much as They Want)?

Michael Phelps highlighted the ‘eat anything and as much as you want’ approach to sports nutrition during the 2008 Olympics, registering an out-of-this-world daily caloric intake that was achieved, in part, by eating unhealthy foods. He was clearly going for quantity, rather than quality.

Meals and snacks filled with unhealthy foods—sweets, fried food, and other processed food—won’t give your growing athlete the foundation to perform well, or establish healthy eating habits. According to some research, poor eating contributes to unhealthy weight gain and obesity, even in young athletes. Your athlete needs to pay attention to the types of food in his sports diet just as much as making sure enough calories are on board.

Bottom Line: While some sports are grueling, high calorie burning sports, such as rowing, swimming and running, your athlete needs to understand that the sweet spot for getting enough nutrition is in the quantity and quality.

P.S. Phelps eventually overhauled his diet, opting for healthier foods that prepped his body for training and competition.

Young athletes need to understand that good nutrition means quality and quantity. Click To Tweet

Eat Like a Champion is a sports nutrition program for young athletes and their parents to learn how to fuel the growing body for a competitive edge.

Do Active Kids Need a High Protein Diet?

Studies show there is an increased need for protein in young athletes compared to their non-athlete peers. Athletes are building more muscle during exercise and need a bit more protein for the muscle repair work that occurs after exercise.

This increased need is about an extra 20 grams of protein per day (based on a 100# athlete) or an extra 25 to 40 grams of protein per day in the 140# athlete.

That’s equivalent to an extra three to six ounces of meat,  2 cups of Greek yogurt, or a ham/egg/cheese breakfast sandwich.

You’ll be happy to know that most young athletes get plenty of protein in their diet from the food they eat. In fact, studies show that most eat 2-3 times more protein than they need. The caveat? Those athletes who are dieters, restrictive eaters, or who follow a vegan diet. They may fall short on good protein sources.

Bottom Line: Young athletes need slightly more protein in their diet, preferably from good quality food sources.

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Do Young Athletes Need to Carbo-load Before Competition?

Carbohydrate loading has not been proven effective in young athletes, despite its popularity as a preparation technique before competition. For one, carb-loading is an approach based on what we know about the adult metabolism of carbohydrate.

When researchers have studied young athletes, they’ve found they don’t store –or load–carbohydrate in their muscles as well as adults. Females, because they have less muscle mass than males, store even less. It’s not until teens reach late adolescence and adulthood that they may see the benefits of carb-loading on their performance.

Bottom Line: Young athletes do not need to carb-load prior to competition. However, eating a balanced, nutritious diet that includes carbohydrates distributed throughout the day consistently and consumed before, during and after exercise, is desirable.

Want New Snack Ideas for Your Athlete? Click Here!

Heads up! Check out my new sports nutrition program designed to teach and train young athletes how to fuel for performance.

Do you have more questions about sports nutrition? Let me know in the comments below so I can be sure to include them!

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Need a sports nutrition guide for young athletes? Check out my book, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete! 

Or my new E-guide to help you get your athlete started on the right food for the day…Breakfast!


Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. If you purchase my book from my website, I will earn a small commission from Amazon, which I apply to running this site and creating resources for you. Thanks!


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  1. So glad I found your blog! I have 3 kids (12 year old twins and a 15year old) who are all competitive swimmers. One of my twins has multiple food allergies(all nuts, whole wheat) and is a very picky eater. We struggle with finding things that she can fuel her body properly with when she is swimming 2 hours a day 5 days a week. Would love some ideas for kids with nut allergies especially since that seems to be a big recommendation that she cannot have. Thanks!!

    1. Hi Laurie–have you tried jerky, Greek yogurt? My book Eat Like a Champion may be of use as it has some snack ideas, addresses food allergies, and includes a few recipes (not a ton but enough to get you thinking…).

  2. Love your content – always good stuff! Read your youth sports nutrition book and learned a lot. I would love to know your favorite post-practice (for us right now mainly ski racing in winter and soccer in spring/summer) car-friendly snacks/meals so my son can eat after practice on the way home and then either get right to homework or go to bed!

    1. Hi Karla!
      Chocolate milk is always a winner with protein and carbs combined. My new favorite is FairLife Milk, as it has a lower sugar level than any chocolate milk out there, and a higher protein level. Plus it’s easy on the tummy because it’s low lactose/lactose-free. Use it for my own son.
      Combine that with PB & J and you’ve got a meal; or any other sandwich, cold pasta salad, etc. If you just need a snack to tide over to dinner, pair milk and banana or whole grain crackers; yogurt and fruit; bar and milk, etc. Hope that helps! 🙂