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Fuelling your Hungry Adolescent Athlete

Alison Patterson (Garth) - Advanced Sports Dietitian - 14/7/2014

“I’m still hungry” (even after you’ve served up a hearty dinner)

“Mum, my lunch box was empty by recess”

“The older boys in my team say that I should be taking protein powder, can we get some tomorrow?”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Feeding a hungry, growing teenager can be a challenge, let alone an adolescent athlete who has the extra requirement to fuel organised sport (which may include multiple sports and/or teams - school, club, state representative).

While the Australian Dietary Guidelines provide suitable advice for adolescents who participate in general physical activity, adolescents who have a high-level of participation in sport have a unique set of nutrition requirements that require special attention. Not only do adolescent athletes need to meet the nutrition demands of their growth and development, they also have to meet the extra nutrition requirements associated with undertaking daily training and competition.

Although nutrition should be considered a key determinant of an athlete’s potential sporting success, it is often overlooked. To overcome this, Sports Dietitians Australia, in conjunction with Griffith University has created a world-first position statement containing recommendations on sports nutrition for athletes aged 12-18 years, who have involvement with organised training and competition. Here are a few take-home messages from the position statement:

How much energy does an adolescent athlete need?

There is no quick answer to this question and no easy method to accurately determine the exact energy needs of adolescent athletes. In general though, the energy needs of adolescent athletes are higher than adolescents who don’t participate in regular physical activity. Markers of growth and health can help to determine if total energy intake is appropriate. Adolescent athletes should be encouraged to adjust their eating patterns to reflect daily exercise demands. This means larger meals and regular snacks are required to meet the increased energy demands on training days. This can be a challenge to achieve around busy schedules, but with good planning will help achieve the energy needs required for growth, training and performance.


I’ve seen a lot of headlines on the internet that carbohydrates are bad?

Adolescent athletes should be including quality carbohydrates regularly in their diet. Carbohydrates are not only important for fuelling muscles, they are also essential for growth and development, as well as brain function (concentration, skill, decision making). This doesn’t mean that adolescent athletes need to be eating massive piles of carbohydrates at every meal though. Instead they should be encouraged to adjust carbohydrate intakes to match daily energy demands, the duration and intensity of the exercise sessions can help to guide intake (higher training volumes = higher carbohydrate demands).


What about protein and fat – how much should an adolescent athlete need to eat?

Recommendations for protein and fat intake for adolescent athletes are very similar to those set for adult athletic populations. Protein requirements are likely between 1.3-1.8g per kg body mass per day. Establishing eating patterns that spread high quality protein sources over the day is the best approach.

Fat intake in accordance with public health guidelines, should contribute 20-35% of total energy intake, with no more than 10% of total energy coming from saturated and trans fats (e.g. fat in meats, dairy, fried foods and processed products such as biscuits). If an athlete is finding it difficult to meet their energy needs, increasing the unsaturated fat content of their diet can help address the issue due to its energy density (e.g. olive oil, nuts, avocado, and salmon). 


Our daughter is often tired; do they need an iron supplement?

Depleted iron stores without clinical symptoms occur more frequently in female athletes. Despite the potential for increased iron turnover in adolescent athletes there is little evidence that adolescent athletes have requirements beyond the standard RDI values (see below). Adolescent athletes (particularly females) should ensure dietary iron intake is consistent with the RDI. Nutritious food sources of iron include lean red meat, chicken, pork, eggs, fish, Milo™ and baked beans. Iron supplementation should only be considered under the advice of a doctor.

Dietary iron RDIs:

  • Boys: 8mg/d (9-13 years), and 11mg/d (14-18 years)
  • Girls: 8mg/d (9-13 years), and 15mg/d (14-18 years) – higher increase due to menstrual losses. 

I’m worried about my son’s bones. How can I increase his calcium intake?

Calcium and Vitamin D are important nutrients for good bone health. Calcium requirements for adolescent athletes are no different from that of non-active adolescents (1300mg per day (boys & girls). This is a higher requirement than that of adults because of the growth demands of children. Many adolescents fail to meet the calcium recommendations, so it is important to include calcium-rich foods regularly into the diet (e.g. milk, cheese, yoghurt, and calcium-fortified soy products and breakfast cereals).


Vitamin D is also an important part of bone health. Most vitamin D is obtained through exposure to sunlight rather than through dietary sources. Athletes should monitor vitamin D status via their GP and, if required, take extra Vitamin D supplements to ensure optimal performance and the maintenance of bone health.

Sports drink? Water? Energy drinks? What should adolescent athletes be drinking?

Adolescent athletes should be encouraged to be well-hydrated prior to commencing exercise, particularly in hot environments, and to adopt drinking practices that limit fluid deficits. Fluids should be supplied in sufficient quantities to adolescent athletes before, during and after physical activity. For the active adolescent, the use of sports drinks in place of water on the sports field or as a general beverage is not necessary and may lead to excessive energy consumption. For competitive adolescent athletes, consuming sports drinks during prolonged vigorous exercise, or milk during recovery or between events, can be beneficial by providing carbohydrate, fluid, electrolytes and protein (in the case of milk). It is important to note that sports drinks are NOT the same as caffeinated energy drinks, and adolescent athletes should NOT be encouraged to consume energy drinks.

The adolescent athletes in the netball team that I coach often make negative comments about their body shape and weight. Any suggestions for how I can avoid this?

Adolescents need knowledge and support to develop a healthy lifelong relationship with food. Parents, guardians and coaches play a key role in this. It’s important to remember that body composition is only one contributor to athlete performance, and that dietary and training strategies specifically designed to manipulate an adolescent’s physique independent of performance should be avoided. Eating patterns and food selection during adolescence should reinforce long-term health, as well as developing a positive body image.

Do adolescents need to consume supplements?

To put this simply – no is the answer! The use of dietary supplements (excluding sports foods such as Sustagen Sport™ or sports drinks or medically prescribed supplements such as iron) in active and competitive adolescent athletes is unwarranted and hazardous. The use of supplements in developing athletes over-emphasises their ability to manipulate performance. Younger athletes have far greater potential for performance enhancement through maturation and experience in their sport, along with adherence to proper training, recovery and nutrition plans. Adolescent athletes, parents and coaches should be aware of the risks associated with taking supplements, and national sporting organisations should develop guidelines to regulate supplement use.

Nutritious food choices can provide sufficient carbohydrates and protein to meet recovery goals without the need for protein powders (e.g. milk-based drinks, yoghurt with fruit, or a meat and salad roll). In some cases, sports foods such as Sustagen Sport™ may help to meet the high energy needs of the athlete in a convenient form.

So there you have it. A snapshot of the latest information on the nutrition needs of adolescent athletes. As with all athletes, teaming up with an Accredited Sports Dietitian can help adolescent athlete fulfil their sporting, growth and developmental potential.

To find an Accredited Sports Dietitian near you go to For further general information, please refer to the Fact Sheet section on the Sports Dietitians Australia website (


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