Nutrition and the young athlete

Fuelling the school age athlete for optimal performance

Good eating and drinking practices are important for growing children, particularly when they are active and participating in sports. Kids who are constantly active need to eat and drink regularly to ensure that their energy and hydration levels are maintained. Children who eat healthy well balanced meals, will be better nourished and be able to play better, stay mentally alert, and recover quickly from training and competition. Those who eat too little may become tired and sluggish and be at risk of under nutrition, which may result in poor growth and delayed development.

Providing kids with quality, variety and adequate nutrition is key to keeping them mentally alert for school and physical activities throughout the day.

Daily Requirements


A young athlete’s energy requirements will vary from child to child depending on their activity levels. As a general guide however, energy intake during the day should be made up of:

– 55-58% from carbohydrates
– 12-15% from protein
– 25-30% from fat

Young athletes who exercise strenuously for more than 60 – 90 minutes a day may need to increase their energy intake, in particular from carbohydrate sources, to 65-70% of energy intake.


Carbohydrates are an important source of fuel for the body and restricting carbohydrates in the diet is not recommended, particularly for athletes, as it may compromise their performance. Carbohydrate containing foods such as fruit, vegetables, dairy products (milk and yoghurt), legumes and grain-based foods should form the basis of an athlete’s diet. A healthy diet should include at least four serves of grain-based foods each day, preferably wholegrain, such as bread and cereals, rice, pasta and noodles.


Protein is needed to build and repair muscles and plays an important role in recovery after training. Protein rich foods include, fish, lean red meat and poultry, dairy products, nuts and eggs.


Kids often wait till they are thirsty before they drink fluids so it is important to ensure they are adequately hydrated. Dehydration can impair sports performance, decreasing strength, energy and coordination. Water is the best choice for fluids every day however, other fluids such as fruit juice or sports drinks could be used occasionally during prolonged activity. Sports drinks are generally required in situations of prolonged strenuous exercise where there is likely to be more than 2% loss of body weight due to sweating. High sugar drinks such as soft drinks should be avoided, especially after exercise.

Energy drinks contain caffeine levels twice that found in a standard cup of coffee. There is no safe level of caffeine consumption for children. It is recommended that primary aged school children do not consume drinks which contain caffeine, while high school children should limit their intake. Caffeine can cause increased anxiety, sleep disturbances and increased blood pressure, with withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, tiredness and irritability.

Vitamin, Mineral & Sports Supplements:

An athlete’s vitamin and mineral needs are generally met by a nutritionally adequate diet. Vitamin and mineral supplements are only of benefit if a diet is inadequate or if there is a diagnosed deficiency. They should not be taken to enhance performance as they can have side effects.

Sports nutrition supplements should not be seen as the main focus of any athletes’ training. Few sports supplements have credible good scientific evidence but, it is for well trained fully developed athletes. Their safety of use is not known in the adolescent age group due to the lack of research undertaken in this area.

Sports Activity Energy Eating Requirements

More than 2 hours before exercise – children should eat a carbohydrate rich meal such as sandwiches, bread rolls, baked beans on toast, pasta, rice, noodles, cereal and milk or fresh fruit.

One to two hours before exercise – children should drink fluids and eat a light snack such as a sandwich, fresh fruit or a reduced fat dairy snack such as yoghurt or custard.

Two to three hours after exercise – children should drink lots of fluid and eat carbohydrate rich foods such as cereals, pasta, bread varieties, rice or noodle dishes with stir fry meat and vegetables, sandwiches, legumes, fruit or fruit juice.

Points to Remember

  • Ensure children are well hydrated before, during and after a sports event to prevent overheating. Water is the best choice for fluids every day.
  • Foods should be appealing to children, so offer a variety of nutritious foods.
  • Aim for at least four serves of grain-based foods each day. Grain-based foods include bread and cereals, rice, pasta and noodles.
  • Involve children with the preparation of meals, this will not only be fun, it will encourage them to eat foods they have helped to prepare and teach them valuable cooking skills.
  • Snacking is an important tool for managing hunger for children. The key is to snack on healthy foods that provide nutrition and energy, in particular towards the end of a busy day.
  • Include snacks such as fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, dairy foods and bread varieties (multi-grain breads, wholemeal pitas and wholegrain rolls). Try crispbreads (low fat and salt varieties), muffins, crumpets, rice cakes, and homemade pizzas.
  • Have a selection of healthy food snacks on hand, during and after sporting events.
  • Perishable foods should be packed between cold items to ensure they are kept cool and safe. Pack a frozen water bottle or ice brick with food.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. 2003. Commonwealth of Australia
Fuelling and Cooling the Junior Athlete. 2008. Sports Dietitians Australia
Feeding Your Child Athlete. 2008. KidsHealth
Sporting Performance and Food. Vol 2. 2007. Everyday Health.

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