Skip to navigation menu Skip to content


Smiling fitness mother and teen daughter together eating apple sitting on stadium after training on sunny spring day

Fueling the Young Athlete

By: Grace Murphy, PT, DPT, OCS

The food you choose to eat today affects your health today, tomorrow, and in the future. Athletes need to consume adequate amounts of food to maintain body weight, remain healthy, and maximize training effects. A poor diet with an insufficient amount of fuel can decrease bone growth, limit muscle development, and lead to illness and fatigue. These factors will inhibit performance regardless of an athlete’s effort.

The following are general guidelines of an athlete’s dietary needs, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Amounts vary based on age, gender, and energy expenditure.

Carbohydrates maintain correct blood sugar levels during exercise and help replace muscle glycogen, which helps fuel the body during exercise. 

  • Carbohydrate recommendations range from 2.7 to 4.5 grams per pound of body weight, per day.

Protein is responsible for building, maintaining, and repairing muscles, and other body tissues. Despite the popularity of protein supplements, the daily amount of protein can generally be met through diet alone.

  • Protein recommendations range from 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight, per day.

Fat is a source of energy and is important for the nutrition of athletes. Although, high-fat diets are not recommended.

  • Fat intake should range from 20 to 35 percent of total energy intake – generally measured in calories.

Tips to eat healthy

  • Increase consumption of whole grains, cereals, and legumes.
  • Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Water is important to drink throughout the day. Often, children will not feel thirsty when they are dehydrated.
  • Athletes should always choose food over dietary supplements. The body needs more than 40 nutrients every day.
  • Supplements do not contain all the nutrients found in food and cannot make up for poor diet and beverage choices.

Strategies to help with weight management

  • Skipping meals should be avoided, especially breakfast. Have healthy snacks on hand when the athlete is hungry to prevent snacking on sugary foods.
  • Athletes who are trying to lose weight should not reduce their protein intake. Instead, they should choose quality lean protein as well as a variety of fish, poultry, and low fat dairy products.
  • Do not remove favorite foods from an athlete’s meal program. All foods can fit into a balanced healthy diet. Having a “Good” and “Bad” list should be avoided.
  • Encourage collaboration with your athlete when meal planning. Help them identify areas of improvement in order to develop strategies to correct them.
  • Changes in eating should focus on long term ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

An athlete should make these changes for themselves, not for their coaches, parents, or friends. Monitor changes by energy level and overall well-being; avoid focusing on the scale. The goal for healthy eating is to develop lifelong changes.

CHKD’s sports medicine program offers individualized consultation and nutritional assessment for young athletes with our sports dietitian, Sue Fogarty. Call 757-668-PLAY (7529) for more information.

About CHKD Sports Medicine

About CHKD Sports Medicine  CHKD's sports medicine program offers the most comprehensive care for your young athlete. From diagnosis and treatment to customized rehabilitation plans, we specialize in physical therapy and injury prevention programs for active children and teens. Our team is composed of pediatric orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine specialists, physician assistants, certified athletic trainers and pediatric sports medicine physical therapists.

Related Posts