Youth Athletes: Setting the right nutrition foundations

By Olivia Haslam

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags athletes Youth Nutrition Sports nutrition

Nutrition is a critical aspect of development and performance in youth athletes, but one that can be undervalued, according to an expert panel at the Active Nutrition Summit.

Due to the period of rapid growth and structural development, young athletes have high energy expenditure heightened by their active lifestyles, leading to challenges in meeting energy demands, which can lead to under-fuelling, Dan Richardson, Academy Nutrition Lead at Leeds United F.C., in the UK, pointed out during the conference last month.

“Changing the mindset of both athletes and their the people around them is a significant challenge.

“It can be difficult to ‘sell them’ on nutrition if they've not got any understanding of it. 

“Half of my job is actually selling nutrition to them and making them understand that it could make that 1% difference between coming a professional or retiring at an early age due to injury for instance.”

Rafael Mama Diaz, performance nutritionist at Ajax F.C, Amsterdam, added: “Many young athletes may not fully grasp the importance of nutrition for their performance and health.” 

Nutritional Imbalances

Sanne Kramer, performance dietician for F.C. Utrecht, Netherlands, explained that during youth and adolescence, athletes commonly experience nutritional deficiencies, stating: “Their schedules are so hectic, so then also makes it more difficult and even more important to meet their energy demands.”

She noted that youth athletes particularly struggle to take on vital nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D, and magnesium.

Despite their increased requirements, youth athletes often have low carbohydrate and protein intake so balancing macronutrients is crucial for their overall health and performance.

Kramer added that young female athletes may also face iron deficiencies, which become more prevalent after puberty, and these deficiencies can hinder their growth and performance.

Environmental Factors

An athlete's overall environment plays a significant role in shaping a young athlete's nutrition, Kramer noted, explaining: “When you're working with younger athletes, it's really important to also look at their environments.

“Whether it's the parents, or it's the other members in the family, or if they have a brother or sister who is, for example, lactose intolerance, then it also has a big impact on their nutrition themselves.”

She added that collaborating with other professionals like physical therapists and establishing a nutrition policy within sports organisations is essential.

And Lou Antonio Matera, founder and CEO of the specialist brand Youth Sport Nutrition, explained that parents are essential in guiding young athletes on their nutrition journey.

He added that handling differences in nutritional beliefs within families can be a big hurdle.

Therefore coaches and nutritionists should provide educational resources through parent nights and open communication, he suggested, to help parents understand the unique nutritional requirements of their children. 

Teaching practical cooking skills and linking them to performance goals can be highly beneficial, Antonio Matera noted. 

He said: “With busy training schedules, parents often play a crucial role in making informed nutrition choices for their children. It's important to educate parents about their children's specific nutritional needs.”

Peer Pressure 

The panellists agreed that peer pressure can influence young athletes' dietary choices too. Often, male athletes may prioritise muscle development over nutritional quality, while hormonal changes can affect food preferences and cravings.

Antonio Matera suggested a shift toward emphasising performance and fitness over aesthetics, to combat body image concerns. 

The experts confirmed social media tends to have a negative impact on athletes' self-esteem. They recommended coaches get onto the platforms to spread positive and educational nutrition messages, as well as providing a convenient port-of-call for young athletes who have questions day-to-day.

Diaz explained that at Ajax, they have an Instagram page for the youth athletes where they share insights into “good proper nutrition”. 

“So we set some examples of pre-match meals and pre-match snacks to lead by example.

“I think it's really important to create a safe environment where athletes feel like talking to you so that you can help them navigate in this jungle of nutrition and supplements... So we try to make it as easy as possible that way.”

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