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Nutrition in young players - Part 1

Nutrition in young players - Part 1

What do young players need? Which are the most appropriate foods for their diet? The nutritionist’s suggestions

In adult athletes a correct energy balance is crucial to optimize training, recovery and match performance. In young athletes these aspects should remain secondary, the primary objective being the maintenance of appropriate growth and maturation. Research performed up to now on diet manipulation and physiological impact of training is limited by ethical issues concerning their potentially negative effects on growth and maturation processes (1)

In the past few decades the number of young athletes approaching sports aiming at higher level competition has been increasing considerably. This expansion has been favoured particularly by the improvement of specific training means. Training and enhanced physical activity are important, although their impact on the growth process of young athletes has not yet been fully understood. Most of the present knowledge on the adaptations to training and nutrition is  based on studies performed on young university or college students, or on middle-aged or older adults. The present study demonstrates that the energy expenditure and metabolism of adolescents can differ from those of the adults and, therefore, many of these recommendations cannot give any clear and exhaustive view of the real nutritional needs of young athletes (2-3)

The caloric expenditure during the growth stages varies according to the maturation periods, changing from a phase of higher caloric expenditure in early childhood and childhood to a progressively decreasing expenditure in late childhood and adolescence, corresponding to a slower growth rate (5) . In view of this, primary institutions like F.A.O. / O.M.S. / U.N.U. have defined the caloric requirements recommendations according to age. Table 1 gives the caloric recommendations for physically active boys and girls.

Journal of Sports Medicine








1800 1650


1950 1775


2100 1950


2275 2125


2475 2300


2700 2475


2925 2625


3175 2725


3450 2855


3650 2875


3825 2875


3925 2875


Table 1: Daily energy requirements according to age for boys and girls performing high level physical activity

From  FAO/WHO/ONU, 2004 [4]

In the reference paper “Sport Nutrition For Young Athletes”, 2013, the Canadian Paediatric Society  explains how a correct energy balance in young athletes can improve performance, lower the fatigue of continuous training, reduce the percentage of injuries, optimize recovery (6). The balance between caloric intake and expenditure plays a key role in maintaining muscle mass (7, 8) and also regulates excessive caloric intake that can lead to obesity (9). In Table 2 the recommended caloric intake for boys and girls according to age is reported.
Recommended daily caloric requirements  (kcal/day)
Age (years) Boys Girls
4-6 1800 1800
7-10 2000 2000
11-14 2500 2200
15-18 3000 2200


Table 2: Hoch AZ, Goossen K, Kretschmer T. Nutritional requirements of the child and teenage athlete. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am 2008; 19(2):373-98.

The position of the Italian institute on this issue is available freely on the website sito della Società Italiana di Nutrizione Umana S.I.N.U. ( As an example, the following table illustrates the age range 6 -17. A comparison of the different European and American institutes shows a good consistence of the recommendations for the daily energy intakes favouring  proper growth and maturation.
(Years) (Kg) (kcal/day) 25° pct Average 75° pct
6 23.3 1030 1480 1640 1770
7 26.2 1100 1580 1750 1880
8 29.5 1180 1690 1870 2010
9 33.2 1260 1810 2000 2150
10 37.2 1320 2210 2300 2460
11 41.7 1400 2340 2440 2610
12 46.9 1490 2490 2600 2780
13 52.7 1590 2670 2780 2970
14 58.7 1700 2840 2960 3170
15 63.5 1780 2990 3110 3330
16 66.6 1840 3080 3210 3430
17 68.2 1860 3130 3260 3480


MB: Basal metabolism; LAF: Level of physical activity; pct: percentile25

MB and energy values are rounded to 10 kcal/day

Age according to birth date: e.g., 4 years means the time period between the 4th and 5th birthdays

Body weight according to the average values per age reported by Cacciari et al. (2006). For 1,5 years the value has been calculated by interpolation

MB estimated by the equation of Schofield et al. (1985)

LAF values (25th percentile – average – 75th percentile) were chosen according to the expected distribution in the children and adolescent population (SACN, 2011) equal to: < 3 years 1.35 - 1.39 - 1.43; 3-9 years 1.42 - 1.57 - 1.69; 10-18 years 1.66 - 1.73 - 1.85

Energy requirement obtained by increasing the DET by 1% to take into account the energy deposited in newly synthesized tissues

The reported values are given as an example and are not regulatory.

Specialist magazines and TV programs very often give advice on the importance of balanced diets but in everyday practice common people are not able to apply these concepts. They lack the quantitative bases to plan the diets for their children and themselves. In this article we are not going to discuss qualitative details of nutrition for young players (this aspect will be illustrated in the coming article “Nutrition in Young Players” Part 2), but rather examine quantitative aspects and, therefore, the main issues concerning proteins, fats and carbohydrates will be reported, together with quantitative recommendations for their correct balance in daily diets.


Proteins are fundamental to the growth process in that they supply all the necessary amino acids, help the development of the skeletal muscle resulting from physical activity and contribute to improve muscle recovery in training pauses.

On average, adult athletes have a quite higher demand for protein intake compared to sedentary adults (10) A general recommendation is an intake of between 0.8 and 1.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight (for instance, for a boy weighing 60 kg values should range between 48 gr and 72 gr daily). The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Dietetic Association recommend for active adults daily intakes between 1.2 and 1.8 gr/kg of body weight (corresponding to 70-110 gr/day for a boy of 60 kg weight) (11,12). This recommendation seems to be adequate also for young athletes (13,14), also because during infancy the growth process and the consequent synthesis of new tissues lead to an elevated demand of amino acids (15).

It is recommended that this daily protein intake is supplied by “whole” foods (16) and not by protein supplements, although the latter are often perceived as essential for growth and building muscles, and for achieving peak performance (17,18,19). The idea that supplements are necessary has been well investigated in adults, but a study carried out on young football players at High School has pointed out the mistaken beliefs concerning the choice and practical usefulness of protein supplements compared to food (20). This wrong idea may originate from the lack of knowledge in nutrition of young athletes who gain information from specialised newspapers and magazines (advertising), from friends and coaches. The advice for young players is to take protein from whole foods such as egg, fish, meat, dairy products, soya, etc. that are well known sources of amino acids providing full support to growth and development of young athletes.


In terms of caloric requirements most of the sources recommend a lipid intake of about 25% (maximum 30%), that is the same for both sedentary and active individuals (21). An intake higher than 30% should be avoided for it could favour obesity (e.g., a boy of 16 and 60 kg weight with a diet of 3000 kcal/day, a lipid requirement of 25%, that is 750 calories, i.e., about 85 gr/day). Dietary fat (and deposited fat) play an important role not only in favouring healthy growth and maturation processes but also for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K and for the synthesis of cholesterol and sexual hormones (25).

Beside leading to obesity and overweight of young people, excessive lipid intake may start the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease, which becomes full-blown in adulthood but begins during the growth process as a result of wrong nutritional choices (22, 23, 24) of parents and environment (family, school, etc.). Therefore, it is essential not only to quantify added fats such as oil, butter, etc,, but also to be aware that fats are present  also in fish, meat, cheese, etc, and must be duly considered in order to avoid exceeding the individual daily threshold.


Fats per 100g food

(Average data varying according to product quality and brand)


 Beef (steak)

 Chicken (breast)

 Raw ham


15.32 g

0.40 g

18.52 g

35.8 g


Canned tuna in oil

 Salmon (slice)

 Sole (frozen)

8.2 g

10.43 g

1.93 g


 Grana cheese

 Asiago cheese


28 g

21.3 g

7.9 g





7.5 g

1.5 g

0.5 g

Other foods

Potato chips


 Biscuits (e.g. Macine)

 Mc Donald's (Big Mac)

32.2 g

5.5 g

21 g

26 g

The nutritional values reported here were obtained from USDA (United States Department of Agricolture) database on nutritional values, and INRAN database on foods compositions


The sources of carbohydrates for the body are glycogen stores (sugar stored as a reserve) present in the liver and muscles, and carbohydrates taken from food entering the blood stream after digestion. Carbohydrates requirement varies considerably according to several factors such as kind of sport, practise intensity level, gender and environmental conditions. All these variables make it difficult to give a single recommendation, suffice it to say that an increasing training intensity raises the carbohydrate demand and expenditure, which means that the more frequent are weekly intense training sessions, the higher is the carbohydrate daily intake needed. As an indication, at least 50% of the total daily caloric intake, or between 3 and 8 gr/kg body weight daily are recommended (26, 27)

Young athletes demonstrated to be unable to store glycogen in muscles as their adult counterpart, and the utilization of the same carbohydrates by young athletes results to be less efficient and fats remain the primary fuel (28). This inability to store glycogen must be taken into account because it may lead to an accelerated fatigue increase during intense prolonged training as a result of the lack of blood glucose ready for use. To this purpose the possibility of introducing exogenous sources of carbohydrates during training has to be considered.

Coming back to the example of the boy aged 16 some practical considerations can be made on his recommended daily caloric intake and macronutrients breakdown.

Boy aged 16, 60 kg weight, 3-4 weekly training sessions and match on the weekend
3000 kcal
Proteins About 90 g 1.5 g for 1 Kg weight
Fats About 85 g  25% of daily calories
Carbohydrates About 480 g  8 g for 1 Kg weight


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Warning: Before embarking on any diet program and / or additions and / or exercise always consult your doctor; the information provided can not be considered as prescriptions, advice or medical indications, and you are free to follow them taking all responsibility for any consequences arising from a wrong interpretation thereof and / or for any other reason on the same facts.



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