Not only are sports a wonderful way to teach kids teamwork, resilience, and strong social skills, but the regular exercise involved comes with a slew of health benefits, including a reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Regardless of their activity level, all children require proper nutrition for optimal health, but the physical demands on young athletes make it even more essential that they get adequate nutrition. “When a child is in athletics, they have an increased amount of energy expenditure, so parents must account for this to keep the child from losing weight and to provide enough nutrients to ensure adequate growth and recovery from the workouts and practices,” explains nutritionist Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., owner of eatrightfitness.
Whether your child participates in formal sports or simply has a high level of physical activity, make sure their diets are rich in the following six nutrients. (Keep in mind that kids of different ages need various nutrients in different amounts, so check in with their pediatrician or a dietitian if you have questions about your kid’s individual needs.)
Carbohydrates are one of the main energy sources for athletes of any age, and not getting enough can lead to sluggishness and a decrease in performance, notes American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Gary Kirkilas, M.D., a pediatrician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Both types of carbohydrates—simple (think fruit) and complex (think whole grains and starchy vegetables)—can come in handy for young athletes. “Simple carbohydrates are great immediately after practice to help the body quickly restore its energy sources, while complex carbohydrates provide young athletes with sustained energy that is particularly helpful during long practices or for endurance activities like running,” Kirkilas says.
Not just any carb-containing foods will do, though. “Avoid carbohydrate sources that only contain processed simple carbohydrates like high-fructose corn syrup, which are typically found in candy and lower-quality energy bars—not only because they’re void of nutritional value, but also because they cause quick spikes in blood glucose levels followed by a crash down, leaving athletes without any energy in the end,” explains Kirkilas.
A good rule of thumb is for 50 to 60 percent of your child’s calories to come from carbohydrate sources, he suggests. “A typical young adolescent male athlete requires about 2,800 calories per day, while the average adolescent female athlete requires about 2,200,” he notes. For male athletes, 55 percent of calories from carbs per day comes out to 385 grams total. For female athletes, that’s just slightly more than 300 grams.
Since protein is needed for many bodily functions, including muscle maintenance, recovery, and growth, as well as immune support, it’s a vital nutrient for young athletes. In fact, when protein intake is inadequate, growth reduction, delays in sexual maturation, and reduced lean growth mass may occur, according to The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N.
Since youth athletes need slightly more protein than their inactive peers, Kirkilas recommends they get at least 10 percent of their total calories from protein. If your active teen needs 2,500 calories per day, for example, that means they’ll want to consume at least 62 grams of protein per day. Michels recommends splitting that up as evenly as possible amongst snacks and meals. If your young athlete eats three meals and two snacks per day, that could be 15 grams of protein at each meal plus 10 grams of protein at each of those snacks.
Great protein sources for young athletes include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, legumes, seeds, dairy, and soy products (such as tofu), suggests Michels.
3. Healthy fats
Though fats have traditionally gotten a bad rap, they are an essential source of nutrition and energy, making them a nutrient youth athletes often need more of. “As with carbohydrates, not getting enough healthy fats will leave athletes sluggish and not performing at their optimum,” warns Kirkilas.
He recommends that young athletes aim to get about 25 percent of their calories from healthy fats, ideally those from plant sources, like avocados or nuts, as well as cold-water fish like salmon or tuna (which provide omega-3s). To promote your athlete’s performance and overall health, avoid fats found in fried, processed foods (saturated, trans, and omega-6 fats) as much as possible.
Calcium is important for bone health, normal enzyme activity, and muscle function, explains functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P. “Not only does calcium help decrease potential stress fractures and muscle cramps in young athletes, but it also helps their bodies grow and develop properly.
Also key to know: Calcium can be lost through heavy sweating, making it extra important for young athletes to get at least their daily recommendation for calcium. Children ages one to three need 700 milligrams per day, kids ages four to eight need 1,000, and those between ages nine and 19 need 1,300, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Milk, yogurt, and cheese are all high in calcium—but they’re not your only options. Plant-based sources also include sunflower seeds, broccoli, broccoli rabe, kale, sweet potatoes, oranges, and white beans, Michels notes.
Iron, which delivers oxygen to the organs and tissues and increases blood volume and lean muscle mass, is crucial for growth and development—two things that happen rapidly during childhood and adolescence.
Children ages two through 11 need between 11.5 and 13.7 milligrams of iron per day, while those ages 12 to 19 only require 15.1 milligrams per day, according to the NIH. That said, young athletes should aim for slightly more due to the fact that sweat can contribute to iron loss, notes Michels.
“Athletes, particularly menstruating female athletes, vegetarians, and distance runners should also be screened periodically to assess their iron status,” she says.
Read More: 6 Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Iron
To help your active kid meet their needs, make sure foods such as eggs, dark, leafy greens, shellfish, fortified whole grains, red meat, turkey, liver, legumes, pumpkin seeds, and quinoa make regular appearances on their plate.
6. Vitamin D
“As children and young athletes place more stress on their growing skeletal system, making sure those bones are strong is critical—and vitamin D helps with that,” says Rodgers. “If children do not get enough vitamin D, they could experience bone tenderness, increased bone fractures, muscle cramps, and impaired growth.”
While recommendations for vitamin D vary depending on geographical location and ethnicity, the NIH recommends 600 IU for children and adults under age 70. The Endocrine Society, meanwhile, suggests kids may need 1,000 IU per day to maintain more optimal blood levels. Work with your pediatrician or a dietitian to monitor your child’s levels and adjust their intake accordingly.
“Sun exposure is a good way to get vitamin D, but when you don’t have that, you can get it from foods such as oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel), red meat, liver, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified foods,” says Rodgers. Supplements can also provide vitamin D when sun exposure and foods fall short.