Nutrition Needs for Youth Athletes

Good news for the parents sitting on the sidelines cheering for your athletic kid! Your kid is not only having fun, but they are reaping the health benefits of participating in a sport.

According to research, participation in sports in the youth population provides several benefits including development of increased fitness levels, greater bone density, lower blood pressure, improved coordination, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased depression and anxiety, decreased drug use, and a better promotion of healthy self-image. Wow! That is a LOT of benefits.

With all of that physical activity, it is important to ensure youth athletes are getting enough nutrition. Without proper fuel, your kid will be running empty and performance will be compromised. We definitely don’t want that to happen! So let’s dive into nutrition for youth athletes. 

Macronutrient needs

Carbohydrates (Carbs):

Carbs are important for energy! Without them, we would run out of fuel. For young athletes, carb needs will depend on the duration and intensity of exercise sessions.

As duration and intensity increases, carb needs also increase. It is recommended that 45-65% of total energy intake comes from carbs.

Types of Carbs:

  • Slow-digesting: include protein and fiber, promote fullness, and support gut health. Since high amounts of fiber can cause GI distress, it is better not to consume these close to game time or practice.

Examples of slow-digesting carbs include brown rice, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and whole-grain cereal

  • Fast-digesting: these are best right before, during, or after exercise (it turns out that those orange slices they hand out mid-game are a nutritious energy booster after all!)

Examples of fast-digesting carbs include white rice, pretzels, applesauce, fruit, or gummies 

When it comes to filling the plate with carbs, these general guidelines can be used:

  • Light training day: fill ¼ of the plate with carbs

  • Moderate training day: fill ⅓ of the plate with carbs

  • Heavy training day (competition day): fill ½ of the plate with carbs


Protein isn’t just for building muscle mass! It also supports general growth and development. However, total energy intake should be considered when thinking about protein intake because if total calorie needs are not met, protein may be metabolized and used for other purposes, which reduces its availability for primary functions.

Research shows that an intake of 1.5 g/kg/day of protein spread out between 5 meals is optimal for supporting normal growth and development in young athletes.

In general, a good goal is to aim for 1.2-1.7 g/kg/day, and focus on getting protein after exercise to support muscle growth and recovery.

Good sources of protein include meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and soy. If needed, supplements including protein powder, bars and ready-to-drink shakes are an easy way to fill the gap!


Dietary fat intake helps provide energy to support growth and maturation, and helps to meet daily requirements for fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids. It’s also a major fuel source for low and moderate intensity exercise.

It is recommended that 20-35% of total energy intake, and no more than 10% of total intake coming from saturated fats. 

Healthy fats include nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado oil, and avocado.

Micronutrient needs

While it’s important for an athlete to get all of their vitamins and minerals, many are deficient in Calcium, vitamin D and Iron. It can even be said that up to 35% of female athletes are deficient in Iron, which is much larger when compared to the 5% deficiency prevalent in the general population. 

Calcium and Vitamin D:

Calcium and vitamin D promote bone health and decrease bone stress. This is especially important for athletes! Think about it … without strong bones it’s tough to excel at any sport.

For calcium needs, athletes under the age of 18 years need 1300 mg/day

For vitamin D, athletes under the age of 18 years need 600-1000 IU/day

Aim for 3 servings of dairy daily and consume other calcium-rich foods including seeds, beans, leafy green vegetables, edamame and fortified foods.


Iron is linked to energy levels and helps transport oxygen throughout the body. 

Females need 18 mg/day and males need 8 mg/day.

Good sources of iron include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, fortified breads and cereals, nuts, seeds, beans and dark green leafy vegetables.


At the end of the day, in order to perform well a youth athlete needs fuel! By including a variety of healthful foods like lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, they are more likely to meet their daily nutrient goals and power them through the finish line!

By meeting with a Registered Dietitian, they can learn exactly what and how to eat to meet their performance goals and ensure they are eating like an all star athlete!


Desbrow, B. (2021). Young athlete development and nutrition. Sports Science Exchange, 34(216), 1-7. 

Sacheck, J. & Schultz, N. Optimal Nutriton for Athletes.

RxRD Nutrition

Matt provides nutrition education and lifestyle changes to help people become their healthiest self inside and out.

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