Sports Nutrition for Youth Athletes, 12 &under….Part2

Onto Part two of 12& under nutrition. Today we’ll tackle protein, hydration, picky eating and weight issues.


I’ve done a fair amount of nutrition clinics for youth sports teams, and I know parents seem to have heard and understood the importance of protein. What I’m finding is that the media touts its benefits, and parents think that their athletes need an overabundance of it. It is certainly important, but it’s no more important than that other nutrients. Here’s why:

  • Protein is made up of amino acids. Amino acids are called the building blocks of protein, and there are essential (our body can’t produce them) , nonessential (our body can produce them, and we don’t need to worry about consuming them) and conditional amino acids (usually not essential, except in times of illness/stress).
  • Essential amino acids-there are 9 of them- histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tyrptophan, and valine. We must consume these in foods.
  • Non-essential amino acids– alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid. Our body makes these.
  • Conditional amino acids– arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.
  • You do not need to eat essential and non-essential amino acids at every meal, however you do need to get them from several meals throughout the day.

Benefits of Protein:

  1. Important for recovery post exercise
  2. Important for growth
  3. Important for muscle repair and rebuilding

How much Protein do youth athletes need?

Most American youth exceed the recommended/needed amounts of protein fairly easily. The RDI for protein is .8g/kg/day. So if your 12year old is 100lbs= 45kg. 45x.8=36g/day.

Youth athletes need more than their sedentary counterparts. They require 1-1.5g/kg/day. So with the same 12year old, this is 45-67g/day. Even with this higher number, most athletes reach it.

Common food and protein amounts:

  • Beef- 3oz= 20g (remember, 3oz of meat looks like a deck of playing cards, so not that much)
  • Fish-3oz=20g
  • Yogurt-1cup=12g
  • Greek Yogurt-1 cup=23g
  • Peanut Butter-2tbsp=8g
  • Beans-1/2cup=8g
  • Milk-1cup=8g

So, if your child has:

Breakfast: 1 glass milk=8g

Snack: Peanut butter with apple=8g

Lunch: Greek yogurt=23g

Dinner: Fish, beans=28g

=67g- and this doesn’t include the protein that is found in smaller amounts in grains, vegetables, bars, etc.

When to take in Protein ?:

Protein should be consumed at every meal and snack during the day. This will ensure that they are consuming the right amounts of protein and protein also keeps them feeling fuller after and in between meals.

Post workout: if the workout is short (less than 60min), then eating breakfast, lunch or dinner within the hour or two is fine. If they do a larger workout (over 60min), it’s great to have a snack of at least 15-20g of protein within 30-60min post workout/competition. And example of this could be Greek yogurt with berries, Milk and a half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a smoothie made with milk or yogurt.

Pre-workout is not needed at this age, however protein can be included in the meal 2+ hours before. Consuming too much protein or fat in the hour before a workout or competition slows down digestion and it can sit heavy in the stomach.


Hydration is very important for youth of all ages. You may have heard that youth are more vulnerable to heat related conditions. This was believed to be true for a long time, however research is finding that this isn’t the case.

Compared to adults:

  • Youth have a greater surface area compared to their mass-they can effectively dissipate heat
  • Youth have lower sweat rates-their sweat glands are closer together, which allows for greater evaporation
  • Youth take longer to acclimatize to heat
  • Youth expend more energy doing the same activity-this is believed to be true because they are less bio-mechanically efficient
  • Youth regulate their body temperature as efficiently as adults

So really, youth have to worry about hydration to the same degree as adults. Here are some numbers:

Pre-exercise: consume 8-12oz of fluid

During exercise: consume 12-16oz of fluid per hour, along with 300-500mg of sodium

Post-exercise: consume 8-16oz of fluid, along with some sodium so, a glass of milk is a great option

Picky Eaters:

  • I’ve worked with parents who have picky eaters. So while I’ve never experienced it myself, I can understand. It’s very important that your youth athletes eat a wide variety of foods. They are most likely to reach their daily requirements from a wide variety. If your child will not consume certain foods, keep trying. This is the key.
  • try to make foods in different ways i.e. mashed sweet potatoes vs sweet potato fries
  • go with different foods within the same group-grains-brown rice is a no go, how about quinoa. Or green beans are a no, how about asparagus
  • Once you find which foods your child will readily eat, make sure you have them on hand, and make meals often that include these foods.
  • Lastly, just keep trying. Eventually most children will grow out of this

Youth athletes with weight concerns:

  • Please make sure your coaches are never weighing your athletes. Also, please don’t make it a habit to weigh your child or talk about their weight. It is important for you and their pediatrician to know where they are, but focusing on this will not help them.
  • Don’t use terms such as “bad food” or “good food.” Use terms such as “this food will benefit your performance.” When you use terms that have a negative connotation, this can make certain foods and food groups off-limits. No food or food groups should be off-limits 100% of the time. You might want to explain how eating certain foods will benefit them, and other foods aren’t as beneficial, however saying things like “cookies make you fat” is not good.
  • Children might be entering puberty, their body is changing. Some children enter puberty sooner than others. Especially females. Be aware of this.
  • Some sports are more vulnerable for disordered eating and eating disorders. One study showed that 30-45% of 9-year-old girls had disordered eating thoughts or patterns, specifically in sports that value leanness or aesthetics. These sports include swimming, gymnastics, running. etc.
  • If you are concerned with your child’s weight, reach out to  your pediatrician. Then, contact a local sports dietician or nutritionist who can guide you on the right direction. You might need to make changes with your diet or grocery shopping patterns as well. Along that line, do not comment on your weight, or how overweight or out of shape you are. You can show a good example by buying healthy foods, preparing healthy meals and exercising yourself. Children listen to what you say, so be aware of any comments you’re saying that they might take as criticisms on their weight.
  • Some things to do to help your child who might be overweight
    • make sure you give them at least 3-5 servings of vegetables a day-fiber makes you feel fuller
    • When they want a snack, choose healthy snacks like veggies and hummus, non fat plain yogurt with berries, a handful of almonds. Try to include protein at each meal and snack.
    • allow them to have cookies/cake, however don’t keep them in the house, only have them on special occasions
    • Say no to soda-only have this when it’s a special occasion, like a birthday

Please share with any parents you’d think would find this helpful, and please let me know if you have any questions. The next youth sports nutrition blog will be geared towards 13& up athletes.



2 thoughts on “Sports Nutrition for Youth Athletes, 12 &under….Part2

  1. Great information Cristina! I have shared with others I know will appreciate this. Now we eagerly await the 13 and up version! Thank you coach!


    • Thanks Faith. It will be coming soon. I’m here in Dallas for a few more days, then it’s back to normal. And back to blogging. But I didn’t realize how much time house hunting takes. It’s been fun, but it will be nice to have a place.


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