When it comes to young athletes, meeting nutritional requirements whilst maintaining adequate growth and development can be tricky.  To maintain health and optimize growth as well as excel in athletic performance, young athletes need to consume an appropriate diet that has adequate amounts of nutrients and energy in it. This is important to maintain health, growth and maturation as well as minimize injury and optimize sports performance.

In sports that require athletes to be a certain weight, such as athletics, boxing and gymnastics, for example, young athletes strive to achieve a lower body weight or boy fat content and this may increase their risk of delayed growth and maturation, amenorrhea (missed periods), reduced bone density and eating disorders.

When children and young athletes are exposed to diet or training regimens that are too rigorous for their age, level of maturation or individual limits, the benefits of sports participation may be eliminated or even detrimental (American Academy Of Pediatrics 2001a).

An appropriate dietary intake rather than the use of supplements is recommended to ensure young athlete participate fully and safely in sport. The effect of intense, long hours of exercise for your child is not to be over looking and adequate nutrition is of vital importance.

What foods are important when it comes to young athletes?

Carbohydrate-containing foods are generally important in the diet of young athletes to maintain health. Wholegrains, fruits, vegetables and milk/yogurt are nutritious sources of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates ensure adequate energy reserves for optimal performance. They also provide other key nutrients including, vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre.

Fat is important in children as children seem to oxidise relatively more fat than carbohydrate when compared to adults during exercise at a given relative intensity. Children need essential fatty acids (essential meaning they have to be provided from food and the body cannot make them) for optimal brain development and growth. Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are important for hormone development and growth.

When it comes to protein, children and adolescents have higher protein needs than adults to support growth. Ensuring adequate intake of animal proteins such as chicken, fish, meat, milk and eggs as well plant based sources such as legumes and beans are beneficial to growth and muscle synthesis for these children.

There are a few micronutrients, that are of concern to the young athlete. It is important to ensure we are meeting the requirements for Iron, Calcium and Vitamin D specifically.

Why?

Iron: Iron is important for oxygen delivery to body tissues. During adolescence, more iron is required to support growth as well as increases in blood volume and lean muscle mass. Boys and girls nine to 13 years of age should ingest 8 mg/day to avoid depletion of iron stores and iron-deficiency anaemia.

Adolescents 14 to 18 years of age require more iron, up to 11 mg/day for males and 15 mg/day for females. Iron depletion is common in athletes because of diets poor in meat, fish and poultry, or increased iron losses in urine, faeces, sweat or menstrual blood. Therefore, athletes, particularly female athletes, vegetarians and distance runners should be screened periodically for iron status.

Medically supervised supplementation may sometimes be required. Iron-rich foods include eggs, leafy green vegetables, fortified whole grains and lean meat (Canadian Paediatric Society, Paediatric Sports and Exercise Medicine, 2013).

Calcium: Calcium is important for bone health, normal enzyme activity and muscle contraction. The daily recommended intake of calcium is 1000 mg/day for four- to eight-year-olds and 1300 mg/day for nine- to 18-year-olds. Calcium is contained in a variety of foods and beverages, including milk, yogurt, cheese, broccoli, spinach and fortified grain products (Canadian Paediatric Society, Paediatric Sports and Exercise Medicine, 2013).

Vitamin D: Vitamin D is necessary for bone health and is involved in the absorption and regulation of calcium. Current recommendations suggest 600 IU/day for four- to 18-year-olds. Normal values of vitamin D also vary depending on geographical location and race. Athletes living in northern latitudes or who train indoors (eg, figure skaters, gymnasts, dancers) are more likely to be vitamin D deficient.

Sources of vitamin D include fortified foods, such as milk, and sun exposure. Dairy products other than milk, such as yogurt, do not contain vitamin D(Canadian Paediatric Society, Paediatric Sports and Exercise Medicine, 2013).

Lastly, young athletes who perform prolonged or intense, intermittent exercise can present with dehydration (greater sweat loss than fluid intake), which may affect performance and health After exercise, water and sodium should be actively replaced if significant losses have occurred.  

Children and adolescents have specific nutritional needs, and although the principles of sports nutrition are similar to adults, there are some important differences. During this life stage, particularly in girls, there is an increased risk for inadequate dietary intake secondary to dieting to optimise physique. This increases the risk for energy deficiency, disordered eating, menstrual irregularity and reduced bone density.

Appropriate nutrition is critical during these growing years to maintain health, growth and the development of athletic potential.

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