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Nutrition 102 for adolescent athletes: The vitamins & minerals you should be concerned with

In our prior article, Nutrition 101, we outlined the key nutrition information coaches and parents need to know about macronutrients (carbs, protein and fats) for supporting teenage athletes. Additionally, there are some really important vitamins and minerals that young athletes need to think about. Below we talk about the importance of: 

Selected Vitamins & Minerals 

The vitamins and minerals discussed below are especially important for young athletes as they play an important role not only in health, but also in sport performance. 


Iron is important to the young athlete’s sporting performance as iron is involved in carrying oxygen around the body. Iron deficiency can result in poor sport performance, muscle weakness and fatigue, and poor concentration. Iron deficiency is often more common in females than males and often because of high training volume, breakdown of red blood cells (from running), or menstruation. Athletes at greatest risk of iron deficiency are vegetarians, distance runners, and those who restrict their energy (food) intake. Iron deficiency can only be determined by a blood test. Supplements should only be taken after a clinical diagnosis and advice from a medical professional. 

There are two sources of iron. Haem iron which is found in meat and fish, and non-haem iron, which is found in plant foods. Non-haem iron is not well absorbed by the body, and it is recommended that non-haem iron foods be eaten together with vitamin C foods to help with absorption. 

Haem-iron foods include beef, mussels, lamb, salmon, chicken. 

Non-haem iron foods include vegetables, cereals, beans, lentils, tofu, grain breads. 

Vitamin C foods include kiwifruit, orange juice, capsicums, broccoli, oranges, grapefruit. 

Vegetarians & vegans should combine non-haem iron foods and vitamin C foods together. Examples include: 

  • Vegetables & an orange 
  • Cereals and orange juice 
  • Beans & capsicums 
  • Grain bread/toast & grapefruit 

Iron requirements for young athletes are as follows. 

  • Boys & girls aged 9-13, 8 milligrams per day 
  • Girls aged 14-18, 15 milligrams per day 
  • Boys aged 14-18, 11 milligrams per day. 


Calcium is an essential mineral and involved in the growth, maintenance, and repair of bone. Lack of calcium in the diet can lead to stress fractures. Lack of calcium usually occurs because of low (calcium/food) intake and not eating enough food to support growth, development, and sport performance. 

Young athletes aged 12-18 need 1300 milligrams of calcium per day. Calcium is found in the following foods: milk, cheese, yoghurt, plant-based milks (soy, rice, almond), tofu, sardines, almonds, broccoli, and fortified breakfast cereals. 

Below is an example of how to achieve 1300mg of calcium per day. 

Food Calcium (milligrams) 
2 glasses of milk 720mg 
150g (5.2 oz) – just over half a cup of yoghurt 195mg 
4 slices of wholegrain bread 132mg 
1 slice of low-fat cheese 120mg 
2 cups of broccoli 118mg 
10 almonds 30mg 
Total 1315mg 

Having dairy or plant-based milks frequently at mealtimes or for snacks will help to increase calcium intake. 

The Food Cruncher has designed a sport nutrition programme for young people aged 12-18. We should you how to eat enough calcium each day and include example meal plans, which also cater for vegan and vegetarian athletes. Click here for further information. 

Vitamin D 

Vitamin D also plays a role in bone health and helps to reduce the risk of stress fractures. Because sunlight is the main way in which people obtain vitamin D, athletes who train indoors or those who train early morning or late evening may be at risk of low vitamin D levels. 

Athletes with dark skin also may be at risk of low vitamin D levels as their skin protects them from the sun, which limits their exposure to sunlight. Vegan and vegetarian athletes may also be at risk of low vitamin D levels, especially if they do not consume any form of dairy products.  

Young athletes need 15 micrograms of vitamin D each day. The best way to get enough vitamin D is to have 15 minutes a day sun exposure. Vitamin D is only found in small amounts in some foods. These include salmon, swordfish, tuna, fortified orange juice, fortified soy milk sardines, egg yolk. 

If you believe your teenage athlete is at risk of vitamin D deficiency, please consult your doctor, who may prescribe a supplement. 

Vitamin B12 

You might not have heard of vitamin B12, but it is a water-soluble vitamin that helps in forming red blood cells (amongst other things). Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body so a deficiency in vitamin B12 can affect sport performance as often a deficiency will result in fatigue and weakness. 

Vitamin B12 is found in red meat, salmon, egg, milk, cheese, yoghurt, nutritional yeast, and marmite. 

Boys & girls aged 9-13 years should have 1.8 micrograms of vitamin B12 each day. 

Adolescents aged 14-18 should have 2.4 micrograms per day. 

Vegans need to take particular care with their diet, especially if they avoid all animal and dairy products. A supplement should be considered, on advice of a medical professional. 

Iron, Calcium, Vitamin D, & Vitamin B12 

The vitamins and minerals discussed above are important for growth, development, and sport performance. Having a well-planned diet should avoid the requirement for supplements. However, if you are concerned about your teen athlete, always consult a medical practitioner before self-prescribing a supplement. 

The Food Cruncher has designed a sport nutrition programme for young athletes aged 12-18. We show you how to meet your calcium, iron, vitamin D, & vitamin B12 requirements through our education and example meal plans. Find out more today about our Young Athletes’ Sport Nutrition Plan.  


Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Nutrition and athletic performance. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2016 Mar;48:543-68. 

National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, New Zealand Ministry of Health. Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council; 2006 

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: aabejon from Getty Images Signature

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