Let me start with the fact that there has been minimal attention to the study of the macronutrients need for young athletes. Most of the research that has been done on macronutrients is geared toward the adult metabolism. A lot of nutrition information out on the web mostly apply to an adult athlete.
With that said we must be careful on how we correlate this to our young athletes. One good thing is there exists some guidance from the Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 for Americans and nutritionists that can help us help our young athletes eat better for improved performance and brain health. Carbohydrates are not only good for physical performance, but they are also an important source of energy for the brain. Carbs help the young athlete stay focus and make decisions as well.
Young Athletes should focus on eating the right carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates rather than too much of the simple ones. Complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, grains are digested slowly giving the young athlete a steady release of energy for extended training. Simple carbohydrates enter the bloodstream quicker than complex carbs making them a quick available energy. Simple carbohydrates might be of benefit during competition when complementing them with a diet consisting of complex carbohydrates.
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Sugar foods should be limited, this means reducing or eliminating desserts, sodas, candy and processed foods.
The best thing young athletes can do for themselves is maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eating balanced and nutritious meals throughout the day and before, during and after training or events.
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Carbohydrates consumed prior to training or competition – NOT carb loading – might help boost their athletic performance and performing well. There is really no need for a young athlete to ‘carb load’ as it is so commonly said to do before a competition. Children do not store carbohydrates in muscle like adults do. Carb loading before exercise might end up jeopardizing their optimal performance.
The guidance to carb load is based on studies done for adults and not teenagers. According to dietitian/nutritionist Jill Castle and the Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 recreational young athletes should instead eat a hight carbohydrate diet consisting of 45% to 65% of calories per day.
General recommendations for carbohydrate intake
In her book, Eat Like a Champion, Jill recommends the following carbohydrate amounts for the serious young athlete.
- If your child/adolescent is a recreational one, stick with the guideline of 45% to 65% of daily calories from carbohydrate-based foods.
- Low-intensity exercise or skill-based activity: 1.3 to 2.3 grams per pound per day
- Moderate exercise (1 hour per day): 2.3 to 3.2 grams of carbohydrate per pound
- Endurance training (1 to 3 hours per day) 2.7 to 4.5 grams per pound per day
- Extreme training program (4 to 5 hours per day): 3.6 to 5.5 grams per pound per day
Ask your pediatrician to ensure your young athlete is eating enough calories and carbohydrates for their activity level. Ask your pediatrician how to get the appropriate amount of vitamins and mineral to help his/her growing bones.
General recommendations for carbohydrate intake before, during, and after competitive events:
Pre-exercise/training or before a competition (1— 4 hours before activity):
- ½ to 2 grams of carbohydrate per pound
During moderate to heavy exercise:
- Events lasting less than 75 minutes: no added carbohydrate needed
- Events lasting 75 minutes to 2 ½ hours: 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour
- After exercise/ recovery: about ½ gram of carbohydrate per pound per hour for 0 to 4 hours after exercise
Let’s do some calculations to get a better idea:
Young Athlete is 12 years old and he weighs an average of 90 pounds. He practices four days a week for 1.5 hr. He would fall under the ‘moderately active’ category. Following Jill Castles recommendation his daily’s carb needs during season is 207 to 288 grams.
- Pre-training or competition: 45 to 180 grams
- During training/competion: 30 grams per hour
- Recovery: 45 grams per hour