Fueling Young Athletes: Balanced Nutrition for Growth and Performance

Growing bodies require a balanced and nutritious diet to support development and athletic performance. Combining macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) is crucial for maintaining energy levels, building muscle, and promoting overall health.

Carbohydrates: The Primary Energy Source

Carbohydrates are the body's preferred energy source, making them essential for young athletes. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes provide complex carbohydrates that steadily release energy, helping sustain performance during training and competitions. Avoid sugary snacks and eat wholesome, nutrient-dense carbohydrates to maintain stable blood sugar levels.

Proteins: Building Blocks for Muscle Development

Proteins play a vital role in muscle development and repair. Ensure young athletes consume adequate lean protein sources such as poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, and nuts. Protein-rich snacks post-exercise can aid in muscle recovery and growth.

Healthy Fats: Essential for Brain Function

Incorporate sources of healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, into the diet. These fats are crucial for brain development and function, supporting cognitive abilities essential for academic and athletic success.

Hydration: Key to Performance

Proper hydration is often underestimated but is critical for optimal athletic performance. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, impaired concentration, and an increased risk of injury. Encourage young athletes to drink water regularly throughout the day and pay special attention to hydration before, during, and after training sessions or competitions.

Timing Matters: Pre- and Post-Exercise Nutrition

The timing of meals and snacks is crucial to support young athletes' energy needs.

  • Pre-Exercise Nutrition:

    • Consume a balanced meal containing carbohydrates, proteins, and fats 2-3 hours before exercise.

    • Include easily digestible snacks, such as a banana or yogurt, 30-60 minutes before activity.

  • Post-Exercise Nutrition:

    • Replenish glycogen stores with carbohydrates and proteins within 30-60 minutes after exercise.

    • Examples include a fruit smoothie with yogurt, a turkey sandwich, or chocolate milk.

Supplements: A Cautionary Note

While whole foods should be the primary source of nutrients, certain situations may warrant supplementation. However, it's essential to consult with healthcare professionals or registered dietitians before introducing any supplements, as excessive or inappropriate use can have adverse effects on young bodies.


Fueling young athletes with proper nutrition is critical in optimizing their performance and promoting overall health. By emphasizing a balanced diet rich in carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats, ensuring adequate hydration, and paying attention to the timing of meals, parents, coaches, and young athletes can contribute to a foundation of success both on and off the field. Always remember that individual nutritional needs vary, and consulting with healthcare professionals can provide personalized guidance for each young athlete.

Featured Recipe
Blueberry Hazelnut Breakfast Cookies

Recipe by: Oregon Hazelnuts 

Yield: 12 servings


  • 1 cup Oregon hazelnuts

  • 1⁄2 cup whole wheat or gluten-free all-purpose flour

  • 1 1⁄2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

  • One teaspoon of baking soda

  • 1⁄4 teaspoon fine sea salt

  • Two medium-ripe bananas

  • One large egg

  • 1⁄3 cup honey or maple syrup

  • 1⁄4 cup coconut oil, melted

  • One teaspoon of vanilla extract

  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

  • 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries


  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

  • On a medium baking sheet, scatter hazelnuts. Roast until fragrant and the skins are blistered, 12-15 minutes. Let them cool slightly, then transfer 1⁄2 cup of hazelnuts to a food processor along with the flour. Pulse until hazelnuts are ground into a fine flour. Roughly chop the remaining hazelnuts and set aside.

  • Transfer the hazelnut flour mixture to a large bowl with oats, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Stir to combine.

  • In a large bowl, mash bananas. Stir in egg, honey, or maple syrup, oil, vanilla, and lemon zest until smooth. Stir in the oat mixture until thoroughly combined. Fold in chopped hazelnuts and blueberries.

  • Pack the cookie mixture into a 1/3 cup measuring cup, then tap the measuring cup onto the baking sheet so the cookies fall out in rounds. Flatten each cookie slightly.

  • Bake until browned and set, 15-18 minutes. Let cool completely on a baking sheet.

Nutrition Facts: 220 calories, 13 grams fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 25 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 4 grams protein

Be Inspired
5 Nutrition Strategies for Youth Performance

  1. Eat breakfast. Every athlete knows that the base of a good training day starts with the proper fuel to energize performance. A balanced breakfast will provide the energy needed to perform at maximum potential. Start the day with complex carbohydrates mixed with protein and fat. The calories consumed at breakfast will vary from each sport and training schedule depending on total calorie expenditure. A popular breakfast for many athletes includes oatmeal, fruit, eggs, and nuts.

  2. Don't skip the carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide the body with a primary energy source and help replenish glycogen stores. Under-fueled athletes often report "dragging" during a workout or a game because of depleted glycogen stores, making their body break down muscle for energy to perform. Complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, baked potatoes, oatmeal, brown rice, and 100% whole wheat pasta and breads are excellent ways to build up glycogen stores for optimal performance. Fresh vegetables, beans, and fruit juices also provide carbohydrates and essential nutrients to enhance athletic performance.

  3. Eat smaller, more frequent meals every 3 - 4 hours. This simple strategy will help the young athlete increase lean muscle mass, improve energy levels and strength, improve recovery time, and enhance daily performance. Meals should contain complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and a little heart-healthy fat. A sample meal that will produce optimal performance would be baked sweet potato or brown rice with grilled chicken or hamburger patty, steamed vegetables tossed in olive oil, and fresh lemon juice.

  4. Fuel for recovery. Athletes know that HOW they recover and re-fuel their body AFTER each training session is just as important as what they eat before a workout. Consuming a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein will enhance muscle recovery and minimize breakdown. One of the most popular post-workout drinks is chocolate milk! Eating within 30 - 60 minutes of a workout is recommended for optimal recovery.

  5. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate. Athletes' hydration needs should be addressed before, during, and after activity, according to the American College of Sports Medicine's Position Stand on Nutrition and Athletic Performance. A relatively easy way to quantify fluid needs is by weighing before and after activity. Athletes should drink 16-24 ounces of fluids for every pound lost during activity. Monitoring urine color is a simple way to get a rough estimate of adequate hydration. In a hydrated athlete, urine should be pale yellow, like lemonade. Clear urine may indicate overhydration and dark urine may indicate the need for more fluids.

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