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Nutrition for strength-based sports

In this article, we discuss how parents and coaches can support the nutrition needs of adolescent athletes that participate in strength-based sports. 

One of the functions of protein is to build and repair muscle. This makes it especially important for strength-based athletes. Protein is made up of 20 building blocks called amino acids. Of the 20 amino acids, 9 are essential that your body is not able to make, and therefore must be obtained from food. 

The essential amino acids are found in animal products such as chicken, beef, fish, and dairy products. The only vegetarian or vegan based protein sources to contain all the essential amino acids are soy products and quinoa. Other sources of protein come from plants such as beans, lentils, nuts, and whole grains. However, these sources of protein do not contain all the essential amino acids required for health and therefore the vegetarian or vegan diet requires careful consideration. 

How much protein do I need? 

There are a lot of mixed messages on the web around protein requirements. For the general adult population, an intake of around 0.8 grams per kg per day is sufficient for health. For an adolescent athlete involved in strength-based sport this increases significantly. As a general guide, 1.2-2.0 grams per kg per day would be a good starting point for protein intake. However, this is highly variable and depends on an athlete’s training load (volume) and type of sport. 

The Food Cruncher has built a digital sport nutrition plan for young athletes aged 12-18 years which shows them how to work out their own protein requirements. Also included are example meal plans based on different athletes’ training load body weight. See here for further information. 

A young athlete needs to ensure they are eating enough food to support their growth and development, and then think about the additional nutrition required to support their training requirements. Importantly, carbohydrate intake needs to be sufficient to support energy requirements. Protein needs to be available to support muscular repair and adaptation, and not used as a source of energy.   

What about the timing of protein? 

Protein intake should be spread out over the day, and typically over 3-5 meals. Studies have shown that eating high quality protein that contains all the essential amino acids within 2 hours of training has the best chance of enhancing muscular repair and adaptation to training. As a general guide, 15-25 grams of protein after training will meet this goal. Higher rates of protein intake (40 grams per kg) have not shown to have any further benefit in terms of muscular repair and adaptation to training. 

What should my young athlete eat? 

One of the best sources of protein, especially after training, is milk or dairy-based products (preferably low-fat options). 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. The vegan or vegetarian athlete should ensure these foods are eaten together after training as this will provide all the essential amino acids required for muscular adaptation and recovery. 

Examples of protein-based snacks are shown below. 

Snack Protein (grams) 
Smoothie made with 1 cup of milk, 1 banana, 1 cup berries, PLUS a small handful of unsalted mixed nuts 21.3g 
Half a cup of baked beans on 1 slice of grain toast, PLUS glass of low-fat milk 18.4g 
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 
Roast nuts & seeds (1/4 cup) PLUS 30g (1 oz) unsalted peanuts (vegan) 18.3g 
1 cup of baked beans and ½ cup brown rice (vegan) 15.3g 
2 x grain bread with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (vegan) 15g 
125g Greek style yoghurt PLUS 1 Nice & Natural Protein bar (salted caramel) 17.7g 
Chicken sandwich (2 slices of grain bread, 50g (1.7 oz) sliced skinless chicken, lettuce & tomato) 25.7g 

A word on supplements. They are not necessary. The young athlete will easily meet their protein requirements through a varied diet.  

The best protein sources for health 

If your teen eats an animal-based diet, consider choosing more chicken and fish-based meals over red meat. Red meat is usually higher in saturated fat which over the longer term has the potential to increase the risk for developing heart disease. Also think about including more plant-based meals into the diet. It is entirely possible to meet all an athlete’s nutritional requirements through a vegetarian or vegan diet. This eating pattern just requires some thought and planning. 

The Food Cruncher has developed a sport nutrition plan for young athletes aged 12-18, which includes example meal plans for vegan and vegetarians. 

The bottom line 

Protein requirements for the young athlete varies depending on the type and volume of training being performed. Vegan and vegetarian athletes need to take care that they are meeting all their essential amino acids, especially with snacks after training.  

Carbohydrate intake needs to be sufficient to support training needs so that protein is not used as an energy source. Protein should be spared to allow for muscular repair and adaptation.  

Incorporating a more plant-based eating pattern into the young athletes’ diet will benefit their long-term health. Choosing some meat-free days should be easy enough to incorporate into family meal planning. Vegetarian and vegan protein sources can more than adequately meet the protein requirements of young athletes. 

Pay attention to quality protein snacks, especially after training. This will help maximise muscle repair and adaptation after exercise. Most of all, remember that supplements are not required. Young athletes will easily meet their protein requirements through a well-planned eating pattern. 

References 

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

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: FatCamera from Getty Images Signature

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