Young Athletes Exercising

Sports Nutrition For The Young Athlete

We are pleased to have Leslie Cox, RD as our author of a series of articles on Sports Nutrition. Leslie has been a highly regarded dietitian at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta since 2009 and recently began offering her services through Atlanta Pediatric Nutrition and GI Care for Kids. As a former Navy dietitian, she worked in the physical readiness branch developing fitness and weight standards for active duty Sailors. She has been an active and competitive athlete, participating in marathons and triathlons over the last 20 years --and training hard to make that happen.

Approximately 38 million youths between 6 and 18 years of age participate in organized sports in the U.S.Unfortunately, many of these young athletes are bombarded with different messages about nutrition from the media, coaches, teammates, and even professional athletes.Some of these messages focus on fad diets and false claims. This misinformation can even be harmful, leaving kids vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies and less than optimal athletic performance.

The Goal

Sports participation increases energy and nutrient demands on children and teens, during their time of critical growth and development. When they are just starting to play their sport(s), everyone wants the kids to eat well enough so that they have the energy and stamina to play and stay healthy. But as some progress and become elite athletes, the goal changes. Nutrition becomes another way to improve performance. "Eat better and you will play better," sounds the theme.

In both situations, as youngsters starting out and then as performance-driven athletes, kids require a balanced diet providing appropriate amounts of calories, protein, vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrate. They must consume enough calories to fuel their exercise in addition to their normal needs, including growth. Their energy and protein needs depend on the level and type of physical activity they engage in, as well as their physical development. Height and weight measurements should be monitored regularly in young athletes to ensure adequate physical growth.

Key Nutrients Are Particularly Important to the Athlete [INDIVIDUAL LINKS to the articles below]
  • Carbohydrates as the preferred energy source for muscle and the only source for the brain.
  • Protein helps build, maintain, and repair muscles and other body tissues. But too much can present more problems.
  • Fluids to maintain hydration and cool the body.
  • Calcium to maintain bone health.
  • Iron for adequate oxygen delivery to the cells.
A Special Area of Concern for Girls -- The Female Athletic Triad

Physically active adolescents whose caloric intake are not adequate to provide theenergy needed to participate in physical activity are at risk for weight loss. This can lead to menstrual irregularities, or a loss of periods, which can lead to premature bone loss and increased risk of stress fractures. This condition is known as the Female Athletic Triad.

It is important to identify and treat adolescents suffering from the Female Athletic Triad early because bone loss may be only partially reversible. Adolescents who develop symptoms such as excessive weight loss, irregular menstrual periods, or frequent injuries (including stress fractures) should be evaluated by a health care provider familiar with this condition.

Leslie Cox, MS, RD, CSP, LD, CNSC03 November 2015

Leslie Cox, MS, RD, CSP, LD, CNSC Leslie started her career at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta then joined the Navy as an officer in the Medical Service Corps. She served as a Dietitian at Read more

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