Nutrition for Child and Young Athletes 

Young athletes must understand that peak speed, strength, power, muscle size, and endurance will take years of well-structured training to achieve. Expectations for these attributes should be realistic. A high school athlete taking a dietary supplement hoping to look like his or her favorite professional body builder will be disappointed with the results unless coaches and parents help athletes understand and have realistic expectations. Young athletes should also be aware that in many cases it is impossible to achieve the same results without illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Adolescence refers to the period of life before the development of secondary sex characteristics. For the preadolescent or adolescent athlete, food is the foundation of fueling. Dietary supplements will not be effective without a proper base of nutrition, hydration, and strategic fueling.

Proper growth and development of the neurological, skeletal, and muscle systems are the primary performance concerns for younger athletes. Peak muscle mass is typically reached between the ages of 16 and 20 in females and 18 and 25 in males. Bone formation is also achieved in the early 20's but can vary significantly between individuals; females typically achieve skeletal maturity 2 to 3 years before males. Young athletes can benefit from resistance training at early ages; however, maximum gains will be developed post adolescence. During adolescence, males experience a 10-fold increase in testosterone, which significantly enhances gains in muscle mass, strength, power, and speed. Child and adolescent athletes should focus on developing proper movement and sport-specific motor skills. As they mature through puberty and adolescence, they can focus on developing the strength and power needed to optimize performance.

Focusing on strength and power development before adolescence will not be effective because the athlete will lack the levels of important anabolic hormones needed for optimal development.

Nutritional Recommendations

It can be difficult for coaches and parents to know when and what types of supplements to recommend for younger athletes. Parents, coaches, and athletes must understand that dietary supplements are only designed to complement a well-planned diet of whole foods. Food sets the foundation; supplements can then be used to provide additional benefit. This foundation of food for the youth athlete is built on the following five guidelines.

 1. Meeting calorie or energy needs: In order to optimize growth and development of the various biological systems during development, nutrition is of utmost importance. Young athletes must focus on consuming adequate amounts of calories, or energy. This can be difficult because of the busy schedules and significant amount of time that many youth spend practicing, training, and simply being active. Calculating exact caloric needs for youth athletes is difficult as much individual variability exists. Macro nutrient needs for fats, carbohydrates, and protein in youth are similar to those of adult athletes.

2. Consume a balanced and varied diet: All types of food provide a variety of nutrients essential for athletes (see chapter 3 for discussions of many of these nutrients). Fruits and vegetables are rich in many vitamins and minerals; they also contain natural nutrients that function as antioxidants. These foods provide natural sources of quercetin, resveratrol, vitamins, minerals, and more. Dairy foods provide a valuable source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Lean meats and proteins are rich in iron, zinc, B12, B6, protein, and amino acids (glutamine, arginine, leucine, branched-chain amino acids). Finally, healthy fats such as olive oil, fish oil, nuts (almonds, walnuts, peanuts), coconut milk, flaxseed, and borage oil contain fatty acids that can benefit health and function of cells within the body. It is evident that athletes and especially young athletes must develop a solid food foundation before considering dietary supplements. By consuming a balanced and varied diet, athletes will ensure they are consuming adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. Iron, vitamin D, and calcium are the most common nutritional deficiencies reported in children and adolescents; however, deficiencies in magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins A, C, and E have also been noted.

 3. Nutrient timing: All athletes regardless of age will optimize training and performance through proper fueling before, during, and after exercise. Recommendations for young athletes are similar to those for adults.

 4. Hydration: Consuming adequate amounts of fluids throughout the day and during exercise is important. Sweat rates for pre-adolescent children are lower than those of adolescent and adult athletes; however, when adjusted for size and body mass, losses are similar. The impacts of dehydration on performance are also similar between young and adult athletes: As little as a 1% loss of fluid can equate to a drop in physical performance. Young athletes should aim to consume 6 ml/0.45 kg of body weight for each hour of exercise. For a 27 kg athlete, this would equate to 0.35 L /hour or 0.09 L every 15 minutes; for the 45 kg athlete, the comparable amount would be 0.59 L/hour or 0.15 L every 15 minutes. Electrolytes are also important in assisting in fluid absorption. A combination of water and carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks should be used during exercise to help prevent dehydration. Water is enough when consumed in combination with food containing sodium and other electrolytes.

5. Eating consistently: Developing a daily nutritional routine that consists of  consuming 5-6 balanced meals or snacks throughout the day will help young  athletes ensure they are getting adequate calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. If a young athlete wants to begin taking a dietary supplement, parents and coaches should be comfortable with vitamins, minerals, calorie replacements, protein powders, and fish oils. These are supplements that can assist athletes in meeting some of the nutritional guidelines mentioned above. However, if the athlete is looking at more advanced supplements containing creatine, beta-alanine, amino acids, herbs, caffeine, prohormones, or other ingredients, caution is warranted.