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Nutrition > Nutrition for Athletes

Nutrition for Athletes

Nutrition-blocks.jpgThe following article provides nutritional tips for athletes, including information on fluids, fuel, and supplement use.

Fluids are most important for athletes

  • Water is the preferred drink for most athletes. If your athlete doesn't like water, try a splash of juice to add flavor. 
  • If doing strenuous exercise longer than 60 minutes, a sports drink with 6-8% carbohydrates is preferred.
  • Drink 12-16 oz 2-3 hours before strenuous exercise, another 8-12 oz shortly before, and another 8-12 oz every 15-20 min (high school) or 4-6 oz every 15-20 min (younger athletes).
  • For every pound lost during exercise, drink an extra 16 oz fluid.
  • Did you know that you don't feel thirsty until your body is 3-5 % dehydrated already?

Fuel for exercise


Overall, an athlete needs 6-10 g carbohydrates per kilogram per day. (1 kg = 2.2 pounds)

A 100 pound athlete needs 1200-2000 calories /day.
  • Eat a high carbohydrate meal 3-4 hours before strenuous training, a total of 4 g carbohydrate per kilogram (1 lb = 2.2kg). An example meal for a 100 pound person is 2 cups pasta, 1 cup sauce, a roll, and juice.
  • One to 2 hours before the exercise, eat another 0.5-1 g carb per kilogram. Again, for a 100 lb person, that is a small bagel and banana.


RDA guidelines recommend 1g/kg/day of protein during adolescence.
  • The average US intake is 1.4 g/kg/day, more than recommended. In general, you need about 30 g protein for every 50 pounds.
  • Each of the following has about 30 grams of protein:
    • one 4 oz serving of chicken, fish, or meat
    • three 8 oz servings of dairy (milk, yogurt)
    • You can search for protein content in foods in this USDA database.
  • Most athletes can get enough protein through a normal, healthy diet and do not need protein supplements. They contain approximately the amount of protein found in a serving of meat or chicken and tend to cost more.
  • The best time to eat protein is throughout the day and immediately after (not before) a workout.


About 1/2 of teens do not get enough calcium.

Adolescents need 1800 mg/day. About 5 servings of calcium rich foods/drink may be required. See also our page on Vitamin D.


The RDA of iron varies with age and sex. (See below)
  • A 3 oz serving of meat has about 3 g iron.
  • Legumes/beans have about 4 g per serving.
  • Many breads and cereals are fortified (check label for amounts, as they vary).
  • Vitamin C and meat protein increase absorption.
  • Foods that decrease absorption (therefore you need more total in diet) are tannins (in coffee and tea), phytates (in legumes, rice, nuts, and bran), and oxalates (in spinach cocoa, and tea), calcium, and soy protein.
  • Recommended daily allowances (RDA):
    • 15 mg iron/day for 14-18 year old females
    • 18 mg iron/day for females over 18 years
    • 11 mg iron/day for 14-18 year old males
    • 8 mg iron/day all others

The best time to fuel for tomorrow's workout is right after today's workout. Eat carbs and protein within 30 minutes after exercising to replenish energy stores in muscles.

Great ideas: almonds, apple with peanut butter, PB&J sandwich

Supplements for athletes

Be cautious of weight gainers
  • They are high-calorie supplements that are high in carbohydrates and may also be very high in fat and cholesterol.
  • They are usually supplemented with vitamins also, so be cautious if taking a multivitamin in addition to the supplement.
  • Weight gainers may lead to a higher body fat, not lean muscle mass.
  • They are also expensive.
  • A cheaper alternative is home-made shakes with adding non-fat dry milk to skim milk (adds 3-4 g protein per tbsp), or make a shake with 8 oz milk + instant breakfast (any flavor) + 0.5 pkg of dry pudding mix + banana (adds 15 g protein and adding a tbsp peanut butter adds another 5 g protein).

What about creatine?

Creatine has gotten a lot of press as a supplement to build muscle mass.
  • The average meat-eating diet includes 1-2 g creatine/day.
  • The supplements usually suggest a loading dose of 20 g/day for 5 days then a maintenance dose of 3-5 g/day. This is used in cycles on and off.
  • The cost is nearly $1/day.
  • Expect about a 5 pound weight gain, mostly water weight.
  • Side effects of Creatine:
    • nausea
    • elevated blood pressure
    • may exacerbate kidney problems
    • can put you more at risk of dehydration
    • While some studies show a possible benefit for intermittent sprint activities and weight training, there are no studies in developing (i.e. not fully mature) athletes. It appears safe in adults, but there are no studies in children or adolescents.
    • Creatine is not advised in young athletes.
    • If a skeletally mature (i.e. fully grown) athlete insists on using creatine, it is important to review dietary creatine amounts, history of kidney disease, importance of hydration, and avoiding caffeine.
  • We do not recommend any supplements or steroids without talking to your doctor first.

Additional resources

Dr. Jacqueline has many resources on her site, Dr. Jacq. One of my favorites is a great comparison that young athletes are like expensive race cars. Race cars need premium fuel. Athletes need the most nutritious foods all week long, not just for the big game. 

The following are web sites that may help the young athlete: Choose My Plate

More on supplements: TeensHealth: Sports Supplements

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