Youth Athlete Nutrition Guidelines

Youth Athlete Nutrition GuidelinesYouths in general have an increased need for calories due to periods of rapid growth. The nutrients contained within the foods they eat should provide the nourishment their bodies need to properly grow. Recent trends show that youths are eating more meals away from home, and that almost 40% of the total energy they consume is in the form of empty calories (1). Suboptimal nutrition can cause complications such as excess weight gain, and may also compromise growth and development. Youth athletes expend more nutrient rich energy than their sedentary counterparts and for this reason, should consume more calories to fuel their bodies for performance and recovery. Proper nutrition and hydration is essential, before, during and after activity.

The USDA provides a range of estimated caloric intake based on age and activity status (sedentary and active). The range for active females 4-18 years of age is anywhere between 1,800 and 2,400 calories per day. For males aged 4-18 it is between 2,000 and 3,200.

Of these total calories, 45-65% should come from carbohydrates, 25-35% from fat, and 10-30% from protein (2). Youths should eat throughout the day to achieve these estimated requirements; and, actual requirements will differ from youth to youth. Below are general youth athlete nutrition guidelines:

Pre-Exercise Nutrition

Consuming a pre-exercise meal should help youths achieve optimal nutrient levels prior to training sessions.

Youths should eat a pre-exercise meal approximately 90 to 120 minutes prior to the training session. If the session is early in the morning eat at least 60 minutes before the session begins.The meals should be small and include some protein to help slow absorption. For example, an egg with wheat toast would be sufficient.Meal replacement bars or shakes also an option because most have a good balance of macronutrients (i.e., protein, carbohydrates, and fat). They are also very convenient.

Basic Hydration

Proper hydration is essential for a youth’s optimal performance, as fluids are lost through sweat and need to be replaced and maintained.
A youth should drink two to three (8 ounce) glasses of water during school hours and again two hours before a training session to ensure adequate hydration before training.On warm or humid days, a youth should drink an additional one to two glasses of water 30 to 60 minutes before activity.As a rule of thumb, a youth should drink half a glass of water for every 15 to 20 minutes of exercise. If outside during hot and humid days, fluid ingestion frequency should be increased to every five to 10 minutes, or the youth should drink more water per break.If training for prolonged periods of time (longer than 60 minutes), a youth should bring a sports drink for hydration to ensure optimal glycogen stores and electrolyte balances are maintained. These drinks also are ideal sources to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance during hot and humid days.Youths should limit consumption of caffeinated beverages, such as tea, energy drinks, or caffeinated soft drinks, as these can contribute to dehydration.

Post-Exercise Nutrition

Youth Athlete Nutrition GuidelinesConsuming a post-exercise meal helps active youths recover after training sessions.

They should drink at least two to three glasses of fluids (e.g., water, sport drinks) for every pound of weight lost from sweating, immediately following the training session; particularly, if exercising in hot and humid weather.They should then drink an additional two glasses of fluids with a post-session meal.Lastly, youths should eat a light meal within two hours of activity that contains a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats to aid in recovery. One example is a turkey sandwich on wheat bread. Meal replacement bars and shakes also serve as a quick and easy alternative for post-session nutrition because of their balance of macronutrients and affinity for quick absorption to help replace muscle glycogen stores.

  1. Reedy J, Krebs-Smith SM. Dietary sources of energy, solid fats, and added sugars among children & adolescents in the US. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010; 110 (10): 1477-1484.
  2. Bowman SA, Gortmaker SL, Ebbeling CB, Pereira MA, & Ludwig DS. Effects of fast-food consumption on energy intake and diet quality among children in a national household survey. Pediatrics. 2004; 113 (1): 112-118.