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Publication #FCS8939

Sports Nutrition for Teens1

Michelle A. Zitt and Karla P. Shelnutt2

Teens involved in sports need nutritious foods to support normal growth and to fuel their bodies for exercise. Providing them with healthy meals and snacks is the best way to ensure they get the nutrients they need to stay healthy and perform their best.

This publication provides guidelines for a healthy diet for active teens to help them stay healthy and play at their highest level. These are general guidelines; your teen may have different needs based on his or her height, weight, and the amount of time spent engaged in sports and other physical activities.

The Starting Line

Just like a car needs the right kind of gas to make it run well, active teens need the right "fuel" so they can perform their best during practices and games. By providing healthy meals and snacks, you can be sure that your teen is getting what he needs to stay strong and full of energy.

A good place to start is the website This website has lots of great information to help people, including teens, select a healthful diet for overall good health and top performance. Keep in mind that during your teen's sport season, he may have some special needs like the ones discussed below.


Carbohydrates provide energy and should be the main source of "fuel" for the body. Active teens should get most of their calories (60–70%) from carbohydrates, even on days they don't practice or have a sporting event. Eating carbohydrate-rich foods every day ensures that they restore their energy stores and are fueled up for the next event.

The best sources of carbohydrates are fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, and grains, especially whole grains. These foods are loaded with nutrients and are low in fat. Fruits and low-fat milk and milk products also supply the body with quick energy. Starchy vegetables, like corn, potatoes, and peas, as well as grains are used more slowly and help prevent hunger.

Candy, soft drinks, and chips also provide carbohydrates, but they are less healthy options. These foods contain few nutrients the body needs to perform its best. They also are high in calories as well as fat and/or added sugars. When you help your teen focus on eating more "home run" carbohydrate choices and fewer of these "strikeout" options, you are supporting not only their health, but their performance as well.

Table 1. 

"Home Run" Carbohydrates

"Strikeout" Carbohydrates



Whole Grains

Low-fat Milk Foods





Soft Drinks


The body needs protein to maintain and repair muscles. Teens involved in sports need protein to keep muscles healthy and to repair damage caused by wear and tear from training. Although active teens need more protein than inactive teens, eating a normal, balanced diet that meets their calorie needs will provide plenty of this nutrient. The best protein choices are lean meats, fish, poultry, low-fat milk products, and beans (legumes).

There is no need to purchase protein powders or drinks. In fact, eating too much protein can lead to problems, including dehydration. If your teen gets adequate protein, then his muscles will have what they need to be strong and healthy. For more information and a personalized recommendation for your teen's protein intake, visit


Fats provide essential fatty acids and are needed to absorb certain vitamins. Fat also provides energy (calories). Some research shows that teens use more fat as energy than adults, but there is no proof that a higher fat diet improves sports performance in teens. Fat takes longer to digest than other foods, so eating a high-fat meal before practice or a sporting event can cause stomach distress.

The recommended daily fat intake for teens is 25–35% of calories. Saturated fats should contribute less than 10% of total calories. To promote cardiovascular health, it's important to choose the right kind of fats. Here is a list of oils and foods that contain more of the healthier types of fats. Visit for more choices and facts about how to reduce unhealthy fats in the diet.

Table 2. 


with Healthy Fats


with Healthy Fats

Canola Oil

Corn Oil

Olive Oil

Safflower Oil


Cold Water Fish

Nuts and Seeds


Vitamins and Minerals

The body needs vitamins and minerals to function. These nutrients can be obtained from foods in each of the MyPyramid food groups. Each food group provides different nutrients. If your teenage son is eating a diet with a variety of foods from each of the five food groups, along with some healthy fats, then he probably does not need a multivitamin supplement.

Teen girls have unique nutritional needs compared to boys their age. Most girls start their monthly cycles by age 13 or 14 and have a higher need for iron. Iron is needed so that red blood cells can carry oxygen to the muscles. Low iron levels, or anemia, can cause teens to feel tired and may impair their performance. Athletes in general are more likely to have low iron levels, but teen boys tend to eat enough protein to keep iron levels stable. Female athletes are at risk for anemia, especially if their protein intake is limited. It is a good idea to talk with your doctor about your teen daughter's need for an iron supplement.

Calcium, which is needed for healthy bones, is another mineral that is important for all teens, especially athletes. Teenagers grow very quickly and getting plenty of calcium helps them to build strong bones. Teens require 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day, more than any other age group. Most teens don't get nearly enough calcium, so a calcium supplement might be a good idea.

Sports Supplements

There are many pills, powders, and potions on the market that claim to provide strength and/or energy. The truth is that most of these products have not been proven to be safe or effective. Unless your doctor prescribes a specific supplement, it is best to fuel your teen with healthy foods and beverages. Making healthy food choices from the MyPyramid food groups will provide your teen with everything s/he needs to stay healthy and strong. If your teen asks you to buy sports supplements, ask him to show you the research that demonstrates their safety and effectiveness. Testimonials and sales pitches do NOT count!


During exercise, sweating helps the body avoid overheating. However, the water lost during a physical workout can be excessive and may lead to dehydration. The amount of sweat lost during exercise depends on how hard you are working and how hot it is outside. During an intensive workout in a hot environment it is easy to lose several pounds in sweat. In addition to water, sweat also contains electrolytes, including potassium and sodium, which are needed for healthy body function.

The type of fluid teens should drink depends on the length and intensity of their workout. Water is a great choice for shorter or less intense workouts when electrolyte losses are minimal. Longer workouts require higher intakes of fluid along with electrolytes. Carbohydrates supply the body with energy during a long sporting event. Sports drinks can be very useful during long or hard workouts as they contain fluids, electrolytes, and carbohydrates. To stay hydrated and perform at an optimal level, it is important to drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after exercise. The table below lists recommendations for fluid intake at every stage of activity.

Table 3. 

Pre-workout Hydration

2–3 hours before: drink 15–20 oz

10–15 minutes before: drink 8–10 oz

Hydration During Workout

Every 10–15 minutes: drink 8–10 oz

After 90 minutes: drink 8-10 oz sports drink every 15–30 minutes

Post-workout Hydration

Immediately drink 16–24 oz

Continue drinking as needed

Teens are more likely than adults to forget to drink enough during practice and sporting events. Low fluid levels may make your teen feel tired at first, but can lead to heat stroke, which can make your teen very ill. To combat these issues, your teen should drink more than he thinks he needs. Drinking often will ensure a well-hydrated body.

Pre-Event Nutrition

The best way to prepare for sports is to eat healthy meals on a daily basis. On the day of a sporting event, the right meal can prepare your teen's body for the hard work ahead.

Guide for pre-event meals:

  • Three to four hours before the event, eat a 500–1,000 calorie meal with lots of carbohydrates and a little bit of protein.

  • Avoid too much fat, which takes longer to digest, and can cause stomach discomfort.

Eating three to four hours before the event allows the body time to digest and store fuel for later use. Breads, cereals, pasta, fruits, and starchy vegetables are perfect for this meal and can help to curb hunger while reloading the muscles' energy stores.

Example of a pre-event meal:

  • Pasta with meat sauce

  • Bread

  • Milk

  • Fruit

  • Vegetable

If your teen is still hungry two or three hours before the event, a 200–300 calorie snack with carbohydrates will curb his hunger without weighing him down.

Examples of pre-event snacks:

  • A piece of fruit

  • Cereal or cereal bar

  • Toast or a bagel

  • ½ Turkey sandwich

These foods will digest quickly and settle a nervous stomach so that your teen does not end up feeling full and sick, which can happen if they eat too close to the event. Balanced meals every day plus the right pre-event meal will fuel your teen for the big game/event. And do remember the fluids!

Post-Event Nutrition

Post-event meals can help your teen's body recover after exercise. After an intense workout, your teen might not feel hungry, but his body needs calories. Research shows that the best time to refuel muscles is right after exercise. A carbohydrate snack is best, but if the thought of eating makes your teen feel ill, a recovery drink will restore fluid and energy levels.

Carbohydrate-replacement drinks are more concentrated than sports drinks and can fill empty energy stores. Remember, replacing fluids after an event is especially important.


Your teen may be annoyed at first when you insist on healthy foods rather than fast food or junk food. Be patient, and help him or her to realize that the goal is to be healthy and perform their best.

Tips for dealing with these issues:

  • Explain your food choices, and be a good role model by eating with your teen.

  • Allow fast food or other less healthful choices on occasion if the family wants them.

  • Involve teens in the planning process by letting them choose from a list of healthy options before you go shopping for food.

The Finish Line

The lessons that you teach your teen about healthy foods can improve his health today and the choices he makes in the future. Even more than other teens, your active teen needs balanced meals to play her best, stay healthy, and grow stronger. By providing sound food choices for your teen at the right times, you can help him or her stay healthy for years to come.

Learn More

To learn more about feeding your active teen, use these resources:

  • Contact a Cooperative Extension Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) Educator (look in the blue pages of your telephone book). Florida Extension offices are listed online by UF/IFAS at

  • For referral to a registered dietitian (RD) in your area, you can call the Florida Dietetic Association at (850) 386-8850 or check the yellow pages of your phone book.

  • For a good guide for reading and using, refer to EDIS publication The Messages of MyPyramid (FCS8904), which can be found at

Recommended Websites

MYPYRAMID.GOV is a complete source for the USDA guidelines for a balanced diet. The website also allows you to input your own data and make a plan so that you can find out your caloric and nutrient needs. Use MyPyramid Tracker to keep track of calorie and nutrient intake and calorie expenditure with physical activity.

FITNESS.GOV provides federal dietary guidelines and physical activity guidelines.

DIETARY GUIDELINES FOR AMERICANS gives guidelines for a balanced diet, nutrient intake, and exercise.



This document is FCS8939, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. First published May 2011. Visit the EDIS website at


Michelle A. Zitt, dietetic intern, Master of Science-Dietetic Internship Programs, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department; Karla P. Shelnutt, PhD, RD, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences; University of Florida; Gainesville 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.