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Nutrition for junior athletes

When considering sport and exercise, numerous factors will influence your child’s ability to perform effectively. Asked what these factors are, parents and coaches will often state natural ability, training volume, training intensity and time spent practicing specific sport related skills and techniques. A good nutritional plan is rarely at the top of this checklist. Yet, sound nutritional practices can make the difference between a child (and adults for that matter) being a good athlete and a top athlete. With the wealth of magazines and websites providing advice these days, often misleading and conflicting, if can be difficult for parents and coaches to know what they should and shouldn’t be fuelling their young athletes with and when. Likewise, children should not be viewed as miniature adults and therefore nutritional recommendations developed for adults should not be applied to children, as their rate of growth and development and thus nutritional requirements differs to those of adults. The process of child growth and maturation is energy demanding and too often, young athletes fail to consume enough calories on a daily basis to support both growth and competition. Additionally, the foods young children eat are often calorie-rich, but nutrient poor convenience foods including sugary and fatty snacks, as children tend to make food choices based on taste rather than their nutritional value and proposed health benefits. Despite this, some research indicates that while youth diets are not great, youth athletes do at least consume more fruit and vegetables than their non-active peers. Between the years of 8 and 18 children’s rate of growth increases markedly, particularly around the onset of puberty (typically between 10-14 for girls and 12-16 for boys). There is also wide variability in body shapes and sizes within each age group. Take a look at any group of 12 year olds and you will see huge differences in height, weight, muscular development etc. This process of growth requires lots of energy. Therefore, it is no coincidence that this stage in a child’s development also sees a significant increase in appetite. Subsequently, parents and coaches are often concerned about how much they should be feeding their young athletes. However, this will be influenced by numerous factors and will differ child to child, even those of the same age and doing the same sport. The energy we consume from food and drink and the energy we burn is measure in kilocalories (kcals) and the total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) of a child will be contributed to by three main factors. Firstly, basal metabolic rate (BMR) accounts for roughly 60-75 % of our daily energy expenditure and is the amount of energy the body uses at rest to maintain vital functions such as heart beating, respiration, thermoregulation and brain function. Secondly, the thermic effect of feeding, i.e. the energy required to digest, absorb and transport food and drink, results in around 10 % of TDEE and thirdly, energy expenditure from structured and non-structured physical activity accounts for between 15-30 % of TDEE. The exact TDEE will also depend on the child’s age, body mass, muscularity and the type, intensity and duration of exercise. Additionally, for team sports such as soccer, positional role within the squad will also influence energy requirements, i.e. goalkeepers will require fewer calories during training and competition than outfield players. Once all of these factors have been accounted for, it is crucial that there is sufficient energy availability remaining to support growth and development. For this reason, TDEE is often much greater than that required by adults. Table 1.1 provides guidelines for the estimated energy requirements of 4 to 18 year olds, though it is important to remember that the more activity the child, the higher the energy requirement will be. While growth rates are very individual, table 1.2 highlights the average gains in body mass and height expected for different age groups and by gender. This can act as a crude guide as to whether your child is developing as expected. 

Energy cost of different sports As alluded to above, the type of physical activity your child takes part in will influence their caloric needs. Whilst there is much research into energy expenditure for adults across a wide range of sports and activities, the same is not true for children. However, data from Dr Oded Bar-Or, professor of paediatric medicine, provides some estimates for calorie expenditure in children for a limited range of sports. These can be seen in table 1.3 and used in conjunction with the tables above to estimate your young athletes overall energy expenditure. 

If you would like to learn more about how much to feed, what to feed and when to feed your junior athletes to optimise performance, then these topics along with supplement use, weight management, nutrition for injury and more are cover in my new book ‘Nutrition for Junior Athletes: A Practical Guide for Parents & Coaches’ available for Amazon in paperback for £11.99 or eBook for £4.99 (link below). Additionally, If you would like specific help with your youth athletes diet, contact us at to discuss how we can help. Howard. 

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