Why Nutrition Matters for Young Athletes
Between my own experience as a lifelong endurance athlete to my work now as a sports nutritionist and coach, I hear and see it almost daily: the struggle of knowing how to eat properly as an athlete. The fear, confusion, and/or stress around food. Disordered eating. A race-ending bonk fest. Lack of solid nutrition education that eventually, whether it’s at age 16 or 36, ends up coming back to haunt us. I have yet to meet an athlete who hasn’t struggled with this stuff.
Our relationship to and knowledge (good or bad) around food blossoms from a young age, and yet nutrition education, particularly as it relates to sport, isn’t really emphasized in young athletes. I’m on a mission to change that, because it matters. It matters for their health and longevity, for performance and a positive relationship to their sport, bodies, and minds. Sure, I’m quite biased, but to me high quality, intentional nutrition education should be a cornerstone of every young athlete’s upbringing.
Health and longevity
At the most essential core level, our #1 main priority as coaches and nutritionists is the health and wellbeing of our athletes. Every athlete is a human first and foremost. Especially youth athletes. This should guide every decision we make, every recommendation we provide. Yet it’s easy to forget. Far too often an athlete’s health is compromised because of inappropriate nutrition advice from unqualified sources, lack of education around nutrition and fueling, or promotion of unhealthy behaviors by peers, coaches, or even parents.
Starting to teach young people about food and what constitutes good quality nutrition through basic education, exposure, and development of skills can help inoculate against these things. And while a young runner may not run for her entire life, she will be an eater for her entire life.
Fuel for the life + sport demands required, we must.
What we eat strongly determines our overall health and longevity, but is also quite literally the fuel for training and competition as athletes. On top of trying to meet their exercise, school, and life demands, young athletes are also rapidly growing and developing at the highest rates of their lifespan. This requires a lot of energy and micronutrients from food to thrive. In the endurance sports I work in, energy demands are surprisingly high for a young person. Cross country skiing, for example, requires a pretty unique (and brutal) blend of big endurance capacity, full-body strength, coordination, and speed development, as well as training and competing in a cold and often high altitude environment. Recent research on youth speed skaters showed energy expenditures of over 4,000 calories per day. Without proper education, knowledge, and planning, it can be challenging for a young athlete to meet his or her macronutrient needs on a consistent basis, leading to fatigue, poor recovery, and increased risk of illness and injury.
What I’ve seen almost every day of coaching young athletes is their underestimation of this high energy demand and a disconnect between how they feel and what + when they’ve eaten. This is the foundation of performance nutrition and learning how to build good habits and awareness is essential. Unless it’s a conscious component of the team programming and culture, it usually gets pushed to the back burner or not even part of the discussion. Athletes are left to their own devices to figure out how to eat, either from social media or from unqualified sources.
Adding to this is the culture within sport, at all levels, to become preoccupied with weight and aesthetics as performance markers. With the rise of social media, this has intensified. There’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way as a cyclist or a skier or runner or climber or football player and it’s starting at a younger and younger age. Unfortunately, many coaches aren’t properly educated in nutrition and continue to perpetuate these antiquated ideals around eating and have more influence over their athletes than they think. As recently as this year, a WorldTour-level male cyclist opened up about his struggles with an eating disorder, created in part by the toxic “eating is cheating” culture within cycling. Accounts like this, across sports, ages, and genders, are becoming more and more common.
As a result of this fear around certain foods, calories, or pressures from their coaches, peers, or parents, many young athletes may intentionally or unintentionally suffer from low energy availability, also referred to as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). This is a complex topic I’ve covered in depth on my podcast but is quite common among athletes. Not matching our energy intake with our expenditure with enough left over for normal functioning can lead to a host of negative health and performance consequences, including the loss of a female athlete’s menstrual cycle, overtraining, impaired bone density, increased risk of illness and injury, and more. At the pivotal development stage of an athlete’s career, energy deficiency is not something to be mess around with.
This is a major reason why I strongly believe nutrition education — for young athletes, parents, and coaches — is absolutely critical for preventing short and long term energy deficiency and promoting health and performance. It’s also essential for the bigger picture of preventing poor relationships with food down the line, as there is a higher rate of eating disorders and disordered eating among athletes than the general population.
Eating for health = eating for performance = eating for mental health.
Some might argue that bringing the nutrition conversation into the young athlete’s world is just adding another level of stress, literally and figuratively, to their plate. That they should just be kids and not worry about it too much and just focus on the sport itself. This tension between being a kid and the pressures of sport and performance is part of the problem. Over time, depending on the individual kid, this can potentially cause fear and stress around eating cupcakes if it’s not explained that cupcakes can be a great part of a performance nutrition plan, or that carbs, contrary to what their coach or buddy said, do not make you “fat”, or even that body weight is something to fear and obsess over. If it’s just not talked about, the culture won’t change.
While I obviously don’t think 16-year-old kids need to be weighing their food or counting calories, or just eating nothing but kale and brown rice for their meals, I do think young athletes deserve to be educated and aware of how food impacts how they feel in their sport. Where and how they can make changes to perform and feel better as humans and as athletes in a positive and fun way. Doing so is a win-win; they’re able to train and perform better, while also setting themselves up for long term sustainability with regards to health and happiness. The International Olympic Committee opens their 2015 consensus statement on youth athletic development with:
“The goal is clear: Develop healthy, capable and resilient young athletes, while attaining widespread, inclusive, sustainable and enjoyable participation and success for all levels of individual athletic achievement.” Good nutrition is a key piece of that goal.
So, if programs, coaches, parents, and the athletes themselves truly want to be the best version of themselves, providing quality and evidence-informed nutrition education and support must be part of the conversation, and part of the training program. It’s a prime time in an athlete’s career to learn and practice, and the results will speak for themselves. Eating well, consistently and sustainably, is low hanging fruit in the landscape of uncertainty that exists in sport. It’s something all young athletes do that has a direct impact on their health and performance.
Here are some simple ways for organizations, coaches, and parents to begin emphasizing nutrition with their athletes:
- Bring in a qualified sports nutritionist or dietitian to speak or present to your team
- Consider hiring a coach who also has an educational background in sports nutrition, or if budget allows, a qualified sports nutritionist/dietitian on staff.
- Conversely, to the nutritionists/dietitians out there: consider getting into coaching, you might make more of an impact than you think 😉
- Talk to your athletes about what they’re eating and how they’re feeling and help them see that connection. Make it a part of the conversation around performance and recovery, and be open about its importance.
- Don’t emphasize weight or comment on an athlete’s body — this likely does more harm than good. Instead, focus on helping your athletes recognize that strength, confidence, resilience, and a well-fueled body are much more important metrics for success on the field.
- Make healthy snacks, exercise fuel, and hydration accessible and part of the team culture. Put out a snack table for key workouts or at competitions. Have team cooking competitions, make it FUN and don’t be too serious about it all.
- Engage and include the parents. After all, they are often the ones making the food related decisions for a young athlete. Having them buy-in to its importance for their child’s health and performance is huge.
In the short span of time that I’ve been working with young athletes I’ve already had so many wonderful conversations and impactful moments, and it has become so clear how important this component of sport is. Not every kid is going to buy in immediately (and in fact many will probably make fun of you…a lot) but what matters is the effort and the chance to positively influence even one small human’s relationship to food. It’s a pretty special privilege.
Jackson is a sports nutritionist (MS, SENr) and junior development coach for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s cross-country team and Sun Valley Devo mountain bike team in Sun Valley, Idaho.