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Nutrition 101 for Adolescent Athletes: What all parents & coaches should know

Carbs, protein, fat. In this article, we introduce the key nutritional information parents and coaches need to know to support healthy adolescent athletes.   

There are a lot of mixed messages about nutrition on the web. No wonder it’s hard to know what you should be feeding your teen to help them thrive, not only in health, but also in their sport. Here we highlight some of the key concepts around nutrition to keep your teenage athletes healthy, and at the top of their game for their chosen sport, including: 

Nutrition Basics 

The number one priority for feeding your teen is that they are eating enough to support their growth and development. Then you need to consider their nutrition requirements for their sport. At its most basic level, a teenager’s diet should be made up of approximately: 

  • 45-65% carbohydrates 
  • protein of 1.2-2.0 grams per kg per day 
  • fat being 20-35% of total energy, with a maximum of 10% total energy coming from saturated fats, and a maximum of 1% from trans fats 

Carbohydrate and protein intake will vary depending on the volume (amount) and type of training a young athlete is involved in.  

Below we highlight how and why carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake is so important for sport performance. 

Carbohydrates 

Carbohydrates are the body’s number one source of energy. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misleading information on the web that leads people to believe cutting carbohydrates from the diet is a good thing. It is never a good thing. Especially for athletes. Cutting carbohydrates from the diet can lead to poor sport performance and a lack concentration, as well as a lack of energy. Eating enough carbohydrates daily will ensure the teenage athlete has enough energy to support concentration, growth & development, and sport performance and recovery. 

Carbohydrate intake varies according to the type and intensity of training an athlete is involved in. The Food Cruncher has designed a sport nutrition plan for young athletes that lets them work out their own carbohydrate intakes using digital calculators, based on training load and volume. Find out more about this programme here.

Protein 

A general guide for protein intake for young athletes is around 1.2-2.0 grams per kg per day. This is highly variable depending on the volume of training and type of sport an athlete is involved in. Protein intake should be spread out across the day, which will allow for better muscular repair and recovery from exercise.  

Current recommendations around protein intake suggest that athletes should no longer be categorised as ‘strength’ or ‘endurance’ athletes. Rather, protein intake should be based around individual training sessions and consider an athlete’s training goals. For example, an athlete involved in competitive sport might have training sessions that involve skills training, endurance training, and strength training. It would be particularly important to ensure a high-quality protein snack is eaten as soon as possible after a strength training session to allow for muscular repair, recovery, and adaption to training. 

It is particularly important that the young athlete is eating enough food to support their growth and development, before considering protein intake for their sport requirements. It is equally important that carbohydrate intake is sufficient to support training so that when protein is eaten, it is used for muscular repair and adaptation, and not used as an energy source during training. 

When it comes to improving sports performance – increasing protein intake is often the first nutrient intervention or activity we see teenage athletes undertake. It’s important to understand that in order for the body to optimise protein intake for sport performance (i.e. muscle recovery and adaptation), athletes must first have a foundation of well-rounded nutrient intake. In particular, deficient carbohydrate intake in teenage athletes may lead to protein becoming an energy source as opposed to supporting muscle recovery and hypertrophy (growth). 

Protein intake immediately after training (within 2 hours) should be around 15-25 grams. Higher amounts of protein intake have not shown to be beneficial to sport performance so far. One of the best sources of protein after training is milk. Young athletes do not need to take supplements. They will achieve adequate protein intake to support their growth, development, and training needs through a well-planned diet.  

Examples of protein snacks are shown below: 

Snack Protein (grams) 
1 glass (250 ml) Anchor Calci+ Trim milk 14.6g 
1 glass (250 ml) Anchor lite blue milk 8.3g 
Nice & Natural Protein Bar (Salted Caramel) 8.8g 
Smoothie made with 1 cup of milk, 1 banana, 1 cup berries, PLUS a small handful of unsalted mixed nuts 15g 
Half a cup of baked beans on 1 slice of grain toast, PLUS glass of low-fat milk 18.4g 
Vegan protein shake made with soy milk, peanut butter, banana, oats, chia seeds, dates 13g 
2 boiled eggs PLUS glass of low-fat milk 19.3g 
2 x Vogel’s sprouted grains toast bread with 2 tablespoons of mashed avocado PLUS 125g Greek style yoghurt 18g 

Vegetarian and vegan athletes need to make careful choices to ensure they are adequately meeting their protein requirements, both for growth and development, and for training purposes. Vegan and vegetarian athletes who do not eat any form of dairy should be eating grains (ideally wholegrains such as barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, oats, whole-wheat bread, whole -wheat pasta) and legumes (lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans, peanuts) together OR nuts & seeds and legumes together, particularly after training. Eating these foods together after training will ensure the vegan or vegetarian athlete is getting all their essential amino acids together to aid with recovery and adaptation to training. 

Protein intake varies according to the type and intensity of training an athlete is involved in. The Food Cruncher has designed a sport nutrition plan for young athletes that lets them work out their own protein intakes using digital calculators, based on training load and volume. Further information can be found here.  

Fat 

Fat is an essential part of the diet and required for many body functions. It is the type of fat you eat that matters for good health. Saturated fat is the type of fat that increases the risk for heart disease. Saturated fat should make up no more than 10% of the total energy in the diet (including trans fats).  

Saturated fats are found in foods like butter, cream, cheese, full fat milk and yoghurt, coconut oil/cream, and palm oil.

Trans fats are formed through a process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil. You will see them listed on a food label as partially hydrogenated oil. Trans fats are found in foods like cookies, cakes, and biscuits (from the supermarket), frozen pizza, fried foods like donuts, pies, sausage rolls, chicken, battered fish, and fried noodles. All these foods should be avoided or at least eaten in moderation. 

Unsaturated fats are fats that are more heart healthy. These fats come from seed and plant-based oils (like olive oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, peanut, and corn oil). Unsaturated fats also come from foods like avocados, nuts, pumpkin & sesame seeds, flaxseed oils, walnuts, and oily fish like salmon and sardines. 

For optimal long-term health, make sure you keep saturated to no more than 10% of total daily energy consumed, and trans fats to no more than 1% of total daily energy intake.

The macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein & fat) 

Carbohydrates, protein, and fat make up a major part of the diet. Getting the balance right is key to the young athletes’ health and sport performance. Below we summarise the macronutrient targets (with examples) for young athletes. 

Macronutrient Target Example Food 
Carbohydrates 45-65% of energy daily Rice (brown is best choice)
Pasta Bread (grain bread is best choice)
Fruit & vegetables
Beans & lentils
Quinoa
Cereals (porridge, weetbix, untoasted muesli)   
Protein 1.2-2.0 grams per kg per day (variable depending on training volume and sport) Meat (fat removed)
Chicken (skin removed)
Fish
Egg
Dairy products (low fat milk, yoghurt, cheese)

Vegetarian & Vegan Options
Tofu
Tempeh
Edamame beans
Buckwheat
Quinoa
Ezekiel bread
Dairy free milk & yoghurt (preferably not coconut milk or yoghurt as too high in saturated fat) 
Fat 20-35% of total energy intake.

Maximum 10% of total energy intake from saturated fats.

Maximum of 1% of total energy intake from trans fats.
Limit these foods (high in saturated fats)
Butter, Coconut products (oil, cream, milk), Palm oil, cream, full fat milk & yoghurt, cheese

Avoid these foods (high in trans fats)
Supermarket biscuits, cakes, cookies, frozen pizza, donuts, pies, sausage rolls, deep fried food (like chicken & fish), fried noodles.

Eat mostly (unsaturated fats)
Olive oil, Canola oil, Sunflower oil, Soybean oil, avocados, nuts & seeds (limit as high in energy). 

Summary 

The key point to take away from this article is to get the balance right. Cutting carbohydrates is never a good idea as they provide the number one source of energy for health and sport performance. Protein intake can be achieved through a well-planned diet – there is no need for supplements. Save your money. Fat intake needs to be looked at carefully. A diet high in saturated and trans fats will set you up for longer-term health problems (like heart disease). Use the information above to make smart, healthy choices for your young athlete to thrive. 

See also:


The Food Cruncher provides a digital nutrition platform aimed at reducing the incidence of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression using evidence-based nutrition information. The Food Cruncher also provides evidence-based sport nutrition guidelines for both adults and young athletes. 

Michelle Redmond is the co-founder of The Food Cruncher and uses evidence-based nutrition information to help inform people to improve their long-term health outcomes. 

Image Source: Pavel1964 from Getty Images

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