Nutrition Issues When Your Child is an Athlete

Conrad Sanders, NDTR

Graduate, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Recent Dietetic Intern I.S.P.P. University of Arizona

University of Arizona


In today’s world, we’re being constantly inundated with fad diets and ways to lead a healthier lifestyle in an effort to thwart a growing concern in America. The ‘obesity epidemic’ is a common headline nowadays and it is becoming more prevalent in adolescents and children. But what about that minority of young athletes involved in sports year-round or the incredibly active kids getting in the recommended hour of physical activity a day? Their nutritional concerns are going to be vastly different than those trying to lead a healthy lifestyle as they’re already doing it. What are their hydrations needs, especially during the ‘pleasant’ weather we have here in Arizona? Are they supposed to grow healthy and strong while being so active? Children are not just ‘small adults,’ they are experiencing rapid changes in their body that can’t be remedied with the same solution adults are using.


The basic nutritional needs of children compared to adults are basically the same: they both require energy, need to stay hydrated, and require micronutrients (things found in those pesky fruits and vegetables).  The amount of energy they are getting from carbohydrates and protein, as well as their fluid needs, can be scaled down from adults while paying attention to their rate of growth. I read something in a sports nutrition textbook during college that stuck with me and I think it should be followed as a basic guideline: “Children who are training should be gaining weight normally, so if they are losing weight or have stabilized, they aren’t meeting their calorie requirements.” As a parent, it’s important to be cognizant of your youngster’s weight over time and make sure he’s not become stagnant in his weight trend.


All of the above makes sense, but at this point, I’m willing to bet you’re scratching your heads wondering what you can do to ensure your young athlete is meeting his activity needs! Well, never fear, below I’ve outlined some basic guidelines you can follow to ensure your child is eating enough calories and protein to support growth with enough variety in their diet to allow them to maintain a wide base of nutrients.


A couple notes that might allow you to better utilize the information provided in the following section:

  1. Calories: needs for your child can be found by plugging your child’s measurements into the following equation:
  2. To get kilograms, divide weight in pounds by 2.2. Ex: 153 pounds = 69.5kg (153/2.2=69.45)
  3. To get centimeters, multiply inches by 2.54. Ex: a 6 ft. tall person is 183cm (6 feet=72 inches; 72 x 2.54 = 182.88cm or 1.83 meters)


  • Hydration: I feel this is one of the most important factors to be aware of in your athlete. Proper hydration is paramount to performance and bodily function. Kids are better at regulating their body temperature compared to adults due to a lower sweat rate and increase in blood flow under the skin. This leads to a more efficient cooling system, but it doesn’t mean they are off the hook when it comes to hydrating. The last thing children are thinking about when they are having fun is drinking water. Just like you have to tell your kid to lather up the sun cream before going outside, so too should you be reminding them to drink. It’s important for them to drink between 17-20oz of water 1-2 hours before a prolonged activity (such as practice), a gulp of water every 20 minutes while engaging in an activity, and then 16-24oz for every pound lost. I realize that weighing your child before a game or practice and then after to determine their fluid losses isn’t realistic, but be aware that there will be water losses incurred during a practice or game that need to be replaced. Sports drinks are good ways to replenish lost fluids and electrolytes while providing quick calories but should be reserved for tournaments, intense exercise of 90 or more minutes, and prolonged periods of exercise. Most sports drinks have as much sugar as soda in them, so it’s important to be aware of that. For the most part, water will do just fine and the rest of their needs can be obtained from food.
  • Carbohydrates: This is what I refer to as ‘premium fuel’ for the body. Without this, our muscles are unable to do the tasks we ask of them. This is the most important source of energy and should make up at least 55% of our daily caloric intake. With days where your child has a heavy training day or long bouts of exercise, their needs will be even higher. It’s recommended that youth athletes get about 6-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight (g CHO/kg). Choose the lower end on easier practice days or days when inactive, and the higher end during a heavy training day or multi-day event. It’s important to choose those complex carbohydrate sources like whole grain bread and pastas, brown rice, sweet potatoes, beans, and legumes. The more variety, the better. It also broadens the palate of your child making them accepting of trying new things as they age.
  • Protein: Protein is the building block of our muscles, so it’s imperative children get them while growing and it’s paramount in repairing the damage done to muscle tissue during exercise or activity. We tend to think that our bodies need A LOT of protein, and although we need some, protein should really only account for 10-15% of our overall daily calories. Experts recommend 0.95 grams protein per kilogram of body weight for kids aged 4-13 and 0.85 grams protein per kilogram body weight for adolescents 14-18. This is a range, and a basic guideline as different sports and body types may require a higher protein intake. Leaner cuts of meats such as pork, poultry (chicken and turkey), and fish are great sources of protein for you and your child. Fatty meats such as beef should be eaten sparingly as they have been shown to have a higher correlation with cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer down the road. Eggs, quinoa, low-fat dairy (yogurt and milk), as well as lentils, are other, vegetarian sources of protein.
  • Fats: Last, but certainly not least, we have the final macronutrient. Fats are imperative to hormone production and regulation (something I hear is important for adolescents experiencing puberty), storing energy, padding and insulating our vital organs, and helping to absorb key nutrients. Fat should account for about 20-35% of your overall daily caloric needs. Make sure to consume healthy fats found in avocados, eggs, fatty fish, olive oil, and nuts/nut butters. Fat intake can be adjusted each day as carbohydrate needs fluctuate, so on heavy training days, fat might only be 25% of calories consumed while carbohydrates could account for 65%. Fat isn’t the villain we’ve been led to believe it to be, it’s a crucial macronutrient for growth and homeostasis.
  • Fruits and Vegetables: Most fruits contain carbohydrates and fiber, so they could be lumped in with carbohydrates above, but what kind of nutritionist would I be if I didn’t emphasize the singular importance that fruits and vegetables provide. Skittles has adopted the slogan ‘taste the rainbow’ which I like to think of when putting a meal together. The more color you can squeeze onto a plate, the more micronutrients you are providing your child. It’s recommended we get 4-6 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That’s quite achievable, and as a parent, it’s your duty to provide your child with the building blocks for success.


So what do you do with all the aforementioned information? The most important thing you can do for your child is have regular meals. That means making sure they have a healthy breakfast before leaving for school, snacks for when they inevitably get hungry throughout the day, and a dinner. That’s right, I’m advocating bringing back family dinner. Your child will love helping you out in the kitchen and will learn skills that will benefit him/her for the rest of his/her life. Including your child in the production of their meal will allow you to impart valuable knowledge to them about the importance of nutrition and provide a way for you to bond with them.


Check out this cool website to see what should be on an athlete’s plate.




For more fascinating articles like this one check out our Fill Your Plate Blog. For some healthy recipes that the whole family will enjoy check out the recipe section.

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