Basics of Performance Nutrition for Youth Athletes

Basics of Performance Nutrition for Youth Athletes

Nutrition That Scores

High-level athletic performance requires food and nutrient intake that is customized to each athlete’s sport, training schedule and individual needs. Many young athletes have typical eating patterns that will actually decrease their chances to reach their peak performance. Proper types, amounts and timing of meals are especially critical throughout puberty when nutrition can make its greatest contribution to a young athlete’s future adult overall physical stature. Improper nutrition throughout these years can prevent one from developing to their full potential in all areas. Furthermore, everybody’s daily energy level potential is entirely determined by how and when they fuel their body in relation to their sport activities. Anything less than eating within the basic guidelines for a specified activity, including meal composition and timing, simply leads to a lower energy potential when compared to proper eating. And this can be the difference between a strong or not-so-strong start and finish of the game/workout. When your energy systems are full, you always feel your best, think better, react quicker, last longer and recover faster.

Proper nutrition can
  • Provide the physical potential to maximize skill acquisition
  • Maximize performance during events, including optimizing mental focus by properly loading and reloading energy and fluids
  • Enhance each training outcome because properly timed feedings of the right nutrients will build more muscle & strength than “random eating”. In other words, your body will spend more time and energy building muscle rather than simply repairing the exercise damaged tissues – every workout should make you better, bigger, faster or stronger
  • Contribute to an extended competitive lifespan: by maintaining proper nutrition the body receives a steady flow of the “right stuff”, which means less wear and tear and thus a natural slowing of the athletic aging process
  • Control weight because diet is solely responsible for achieving ideal playing weight

We’ll begin with the basics of performance nutrition and in later articles discuss energy systems, meal timing, pre- and post-training/competition meals and much more. So stay tuned and you’ll definitely stay a cut above your competition.

Energy is Everything

The daily calorie intake for every young athlete should provide the energy needed for growth and development, optimal functioning as well as all training and activities. Just as a high performance car uses a special blend of gasoline to achieve peak performance, athletes also require the proper mixture of fuel (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) to perform optimally. Therefore, the “blend” of fuel and timing of meals and snacks are critical to maximizing performance potential. Daily calorie requirements will be different for each athlete but general recommendations are as follows:1  
  • Active girls ages 13 to 18: range from 2,000 to 2900 calories per day
  • Active boys ages 13 to 18: range from 2,600 to 3,700 calories per day
  • The actual calories you should eat will vary depending on goal, age, weight, height, and activity level2

Carbohydrates – High-Performance Fuel

Carbohydrates (fruit, breads, pasta, rice, potatoes, etc.) are the body’s primary and preferred energy source. Once eaten, they rapidly break down to blood sugar (glucose). The brain, nervous system and muscles are fueled mostly by glucose. Therefore, a continuous supply of carbohydrate is necessary to prevent body stores from being depleted. Not getting the right amount of carbohydrate leads to low energy levels, fatigue and significantly impaired performance.  Proper management of the amounts, types and timing of this nutrient is required to fill and refill the main “gas tank”. Key carbohydrate guidelines are listed here:
  • Carbohydrates should make up approximately 60 percent of your total diet.3   
  • Starches and grains should be eaten at each major meal throughout the day to provide a lasting energy source. Major meals should be eaten every three to four hours.
  • Carbohydrates such as fruit, energy bars/shakes, and sports drinks are ideal for rapid fueling before activity to “top off” the gas tank and immediately after exercise to optimize recovery.  The pre- and post-exercise timing is very important!
  • Depending on the sport, growing athletes should consume 3 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight every day.4,5  
Good/Better Carb Meal Choices   
  • Whole Grains (except pre-game meal – use refined grains)   
    •   Pastas   
    •   Cereals   
    •   Breads   
    •   Rice   
  • Potatoes – Any kind (avoid French fries whenever possible)    
  • Fruits – Any kind  

Not So Great Carb Meal Choices

  • French Fries
  • Fruit Juices
  • Calorie sodas of any kind
  • Candies including chocolate
  • Donuts

Protein – The Building Blocks
Muscles and other body tissues are made up of proteins. Although protein contains the same amount of energy as carbohydrates, its primary function is the growth and repair of these tissues. Because it is not the body’s preferred source of energy, very little protein is used for fuel unless carbohydrate availability is limited or energy demands are extreme. In this case, protein is detoured from its main functions and broken down for fuel. Consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrates insures that protein is used for building and repairing tissues preventing the loss of muscle; in other words, carbohydrate is protein sparing. General protein recommendations are listed below:
  • Protein should make up approximately 15 to 20 percent of your total daily calories which most young athletes meet with a typical diet.6
  • The daily protein requirement for sedentary youth ages 9 to 18 is approximately 0.35 grams per pound of body weight per day for proper growth and repair. However, young athletes and through adulthood require more protein - up to 1 gram per pound of body weight per day.7,8   
  • Lean meats, poultry (chicken, turkey) without skin, fish, eggs and soy products are excellent sources of protein. Other sources include beans, nuts and dairy products.


Good/Better Protein Meal Choices   

  • Lean Meats   
    •   Chicken      
    •   Turkey      
    •   Beef (fillets, flank, ground, round, etc.)      
    •   Most any fish   
  • Shakes/bars when necessary      
    •    Convenient fill-in when meals lack protein     
  • Eggs   
  • Soy Products    

Not So Great Protein Meal Choices

  • Fatty Meats
    • Bacon
    • Untrimmed steaks
    • Most fast food burgers
  • Fried Meats
    • Chicken including tenders, etc.
    • Fish and chips
  • Average hotdog

Fats – Unlimited Energy

Dietary fats are essential to health because they help deliver vitamins, minerals and nutrients needed for normal growth and functioning. However, most people get more than enough fat in their diet. Furthermore, fat is not the main energy source during exercise and the body’s stores cannot be depleted during exercise. This means that daily fat intake is less important than carbohydrate and protein. In fact, what leads to fatigue - or what athletes refer to as “bonking” or “hitting the wall” – is the depletion of carbohydrates. Guidelines for fat intake are listed below:
  • Fat should make up approximately 25% percent of your diet.9   
  • The majority of fat intake will automatically come from protein foods such as meat, fish, milk and other dairy products.
  • Good sources of healthy fats include fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), olive oil, canola oil and nuts.


Based on the sport, the goal of performance nutrition is to eat carbohydrates, protein and fats in ideal amounts and at proper times to allow athletes to perform at a high level and maintain normal growth and development patterns. By keeping protein intake within the proper range to satisfy growth and repair, consume as much carbohydrate as necessary to keep filling the main “gas tank” and leave the remaining calories for dietary fats.  Now let’s start getting dialed-in and watch for the next issue. We’ll be addressing loading energy systems for explosive workouts and prolonged training and proper meal timing in the next couple weeks.



  1. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Values for Energy for Active Individuals. Washington DC, 2002. The National Academies Press.
  2. Petrie HJ, Stover EA, Horswill CA. Nutritional concerns for the child and adolescent competitor. Nutrition. 2004 Jul-Aug;20(7-8):620-31. Review.
  3. McArdle WD, Katch FI, Katch, VL. Sports & Exercise Nutrition. Maryland: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1999. P.15.
  4. Burke LM, Kiens B, Ivy JL. Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery. J Sports Sci. 2004 Jan;22(1):15-30. Review.
  5. Haff GG. "Carbohydrates." Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements. Ed. Antonio J, et al. New Jersey: Human Press, 2007. 298.
  6. Maughan RJ, Burke LM. Sports nutrition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Science, 2002
  7. Unnithan VB, Goulopoulou S. Nutrition for the pediatric athlete. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2004 Aug;3(4):206-11.
  8. Ziegenfuss TN, Landis J. "Protein." Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements. Ed. Antonio J, et al.  New Jersey: Human Press, 2007. 256.
  9. Committee on Nutrition, American Academy of Pediatrics. Pediatric nutrition handbook, 3 ed. Elk Grove, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics, 1993


Get Your Fitness/Nutrition Advice!


Need Our Help?