Sports Nutrition for Teen Athletes: A Parent’s Guide
Proper sports nutrition is essential for teen athletes to perform at their best, avoid injury, and support healthy growth and development. As a parent, you play a key role in helping your teen athlete develop good nutrition habits. This comprehensive guide will help you understand your teen's nutritional needs and how to support their athletic goals.
Why Sports Nutrition Matters
During adolescence, your teen athlete undergoes rapid growth and development. They need extra calories and nutrients to support muscle growth, bone development, and changes associated with puberty. Without proper fueling, your teen may face these issues:
Fatigue - Can impair performance during sports and schoolwork.
Increased injury risk - Lack of nutrients can weaken muscles, tendons, and bones.
Slowed growth and maturation - Nutrients like calcium and vitamin D are vital for growth.
Disordered eating habits - Strict dieting raises the risk of developing eating disorders.
By supporting healthy nutrition tailored to your teen's sport, age, body size, and goals, you’ll help them achieve peak athletic performance, good health, and positive self-image.
Nutrients for Active Teens
Active teens need more of certain nutrients than their less active peers. Make sure your teen's diet provides adequate amounts of the following key nutrients:
Carbs are your teen athlete's main source of fuel before, during, and after exercise. They help delay fatigue so your teen can keep performing at their best. High carb foods include:
Beans and legumes
Protein provides the building blocks for important tissues like muscle. Without enough protein, muscle growth and recovery from sports will suffer. Good sources are:
Fish and seafood
Beans, lentils, nuts and seeds
Milk, cheese, yogurt
Soy foods like tofu and tempeh
Shoot for 20-30 grams of protein in meals and snacks eaten before or after workouts to maximize repair and growth.
Don’t encourage low-fat diets, which can shortchange teens of fatty acids vital for health and sports performance. Encourage mono- and polyunsaturated fats from sources like:
Nuts and nut butters
Fatty fish like salmon and tuna
Vitamins and Minerals
Micronutrients like vitamins and minerals support energy production, muscle contraction, bone health, immune function, and protection from oxidative damage. Important ones for active teens include:
Milk, yogurt, cheese, soy milk, greens
Fortified milk and cereals, fatty fish
Lean meats, beans, lentils, spinach
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables
Meat, poultry, beans, nuts
Dehydration, even mild, can negatively affect sports performance. Make sure your teen athlete hydrates properly with these tips:
Drink consistently - Have your teen sip water every 15-20 minutes during activities. Don't just drink when thirsty.
Drink more in heat - Have extra water on hot days.
Choose proper beverages - Water is best for hydration. Limit sugary drinks like soda and fruit juice.
Carry a water bottle - Provide a reusable bottle to make drinking water simple.
Eat water-rich foods - Fruits and vegetables like melons, oranges, tomatoes, lettuce, and celery help hydrate.
Pay attention to signs of dehydration like excessive thirst, fatigue, headache, cramps, and dark urine. Seek medical care if symptoms are severe or last a long time.
Meeting Energy Needs
Gender - Males generally require more calories than girls as they tend to be bigger and have more muscle mass.
Body Size - The more you weigh, the more energy you burn during activity and at rest.
Fitness Level - Well trained teen athletes need up to 60% extra calories than inactive peers.
Duration & intensity of training - Teens doing endurance sports or training over 20 hours a week need more calories.
As a parent, don’t obsess over calories. Focus on providing regular meals and snacks containing nutrient-dense fuel throughout the day. Let your teen listen to internal hunger and fullness cues to guide how much to eat.
Signs your athlete isn't getting enough calories include:
🚩 Fatigue, weakness 🚩 Lack of growth 🚩 Frequent illness or injury
🚩 Loss of menstrual period in girls
If these occur, involve your teen’s doctor and sports dietitian to create a personalized nutrition plan.
Meal & Snack Recommendations
Fuel up your teen athlete's tank by providing nutrient-rich meals and snacks spaced evenly throughout the day. Follow these tips:
✅ Give a pre-exercise snack 1-4 hours before sports:
Fresh fruit & Greek yogurt
Trail mix made with nuts, seeds & dried fruit
Whole grain toast with nut butter
Carbohydrate-rich snacks boost energy levels for practices and games.
✅ Don’t let your athlete leave home without a pre-game meal including:
Lean protein like eggs, Greek yogurt or lean meat
Slow-burning carbs such as oatmeal, whole grains and starchy vegetables
Healthy fats from olive oil, nuts, seeds or avocados
Eating 1-4 hours pre-game maintains energy, strength and mental focus.
✅ Prepare nourishing post-workout meals within 30-60 minutes including:
Lean meat or fish
Whole grains like brown rice or quinoa
Dairy foods like milk and yogurt
Combo of carbs & protein aids muscle repair, growth and replenishes energy.
✅ Keep nutrient-dense snacks handy at all times, like:
Fresh and dried fruits
Yogurt and cheese
Vegetables with hummus
Hard boiled eggs
Trail mix, granola bars
Smoothies made with milk and fruit
Snacks provide an energy boost and nutrients for growth and development.
Special Diets & Supplement Regulations
Some teen athletes adopt special diets they believe gives them a competitive edge. As a parent, take caution with restrictive plans that demonize entire food groups. This raises the risk of nutritional gaps and disordered eating patterns.
Discuss supplement use carefully as well. While sports supplements are marketed as ergogenic aids, most lack evidence and some contain banned substances.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), here's what parents and teen athletes should know:
Vegetarian teen athletes may be at risk for deficiencies in protein, iron vitamin B12, zinc, calcium and vitamin D. Consult a sports dietitian to ensure nutritional needs are met, especially during growth spurts.
Paleo and Keto Diets
Strict low-carb diets can impair performance. Carbs are the primary fuel to supply muscles during exercise. Some natural carbs come from nutrient-dense sources, so completely avoiding them can mean missing out on vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
While fasting diets have gained popularity for weight loss, they aren't recommended for growing teens. IF could impair muscle growth after training if post-workout nutrition is delayed for too long.
Protein supplements aren't needed to build muscle as long as your athlete eats adequate protein from whole foods at meals and snacks. Excess protein supplements can displace more nutrient-dense calories. Some products also contain unhealthy additives.
While creatine may provide some benefit for strength and sprint training, data in teens is limited. Due to lack of research, creatine isn't recommended for athletes under age 18.
Stimulants like caffeine may enhance strength and speed but can be problematic. Since dosing isn't regulated in supplements, stimulants raise the risk of overconsumption, dehydration and overheating. Many sports organizations ban stimulant use.
Developing Healthy Habits
Good nutrition depends largely on habits formed early in life. Use these tips to set your teen athlete up with a solid nutrition foundation:
✅ Lead by example
Model balanced eating, drinking enough fluids, and having a positive body image. Avoid talking negatively about your own weight and appearance.
✅ Promote moderation
Banning “bad” foods leads to overconsumption when teens are out of your sight. Allow treats in moderation to develop a healthy relationship with food.
✅ Encourage self-care
Talk about listening to hunger/fullness signals instead of tracking calories or nutrients. Emphasize health rather than weight or appearance.
✅ Teach cooking skills
Have teens help grocery shop and prepare meals. They’ll be more invested in eating properly if they cook tasty fuelling foods.
✅ Limit eating out
Restaurant meals are often low in nutrients and high in fat, sugar and salt. Focus on nutritious meals cooked at home.
Red Flags of Disordered Eating to Watch For
The pressure to lose weight combined with unrealistic body ideals raises teens’ risk of developing disordered eating habits. Watch for any of these red flags:
🚩 Rapid weight loss or gain 🚩 Constant dieting or binge eating
🚩 Avoiding certain food groups (fat, carbs, etc) 🚩 Obsession with calories and nutrients
🚩 Compulsive over-exercising 🚩 Use of diet pills, laxatives or supplements for weight loss 🚩 Negative body image and extreme weight/appearance dissatisfaction
If you notice any of the above signs or have any concerns about your teen's nutritional or mental health, seek guidance from a doctor right away. Catching problems early greatly improves prognosis.
Like a car requires the right type of fuel to perform properly, teen athletes need enough quality nutrition to accomplish their goals safely. Supply regular meals and snacks with adequate carbs, proteins and other nutrients. Promote lifelong healthy habits by modeling balanced eating, letting treats fit in moderation, encouraging body positivity, and teaching cooking skills. Pay attention so any problematic issues can be addressed promptly by the appropriate health professionals. With your support in developing proper nutrition, your teen athlete will thrive in sports and life.