by Tim Curry, MS ACSM-RCEP


The question “What did you eat today before practice?” can elicit a wide range of responses from young athletes. As an exercise physiologist who has spent years working with high school athletes, I have observed the same thing across numerous states: dietary choices are a constant concern. In today’s world, there is a never-ending stream of advice on dietary intake which is unsupported by dietary science and is not tailored to the needs of young athletes.

Teenagers, both generally and athletically speaking, are a unique group. They have complex food needs to support a high-growth period, and rapid changes in cognitive development. Here are some scientifically-sound recommendations regarding dietary intake for young athletes, and the young-at-heart.


Commonly, discussions around nutrition focus on negative consequences resulting from the athlete’s dietary choices. In behavior change theory this is called a “negative appeal” (focusing on what is lost). There are very few cases where this approach would be effective, and it can be detrimental in the long-term. Instead, create a positive appeal for change” by focusing on what can be gained. For example:

Negative appeal — You need to eat breakfast before the game. If you don’t, then you’ll hit the wall and let your team down.

Instead, try:

Positive appeal — The game today is important to you and the team, right? Would it help for you to have more energy in the fourth quarter? Having some food for breakfast will help refuel what you lost overnight and increase the likelihood you’ll play better today.

The second version is more likely to promote meaningful change in dietary habit because we are highlighting what can be gained. An important consideration is to appeal to something important to this specific athlete. You can approach this by having an open discussion with the athlete about their goals and how they might want to approach those goals.


From football to cycling, young athletes can struggle with establishing healthy dietary habits. Encouraging the tracking of food intake in a highly precise manner, or focusing on body composition for a young athlete, can promote an unhealthy relationship to food and nutrition. Instead, we should focus on general discussions involving ways to optimize the foods athletes eat to effectively fuel their bodies and allow them to enjoy their sport.

Discussing food in terms of nutrition, rather than “good” vs. “bad” can help de-stigmatize the topic and reduce the risk of developing an unhealthy relationship to food. By creating positive appeals for healthier eating habits, athletes are more likely to eat healthier on their own. Food should be a fun, stress-free way to fuel hard-working bodies.


Macronutritents are the four areas of our diet where we need substantial intake to support health. They include our intake of fat, carbohydrates, protein, and water. The American Dietetic Association and the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board have the following science-supported recommendations regarding macronutrient consumption:

  • CARBOHYDRATES — Carbs should make up 45–65% of total caloric intake. Carbs are important to many functions in our body, and critical to athletic performance. Consuming about 1/2 of our calories from carbs is ideal based on the current data. Try to choose complex carbs, rather than simple carbs when possible.
  • PROTEIN — Protein should be 10–35% of total caloric intake (usually between .36 to 1.1 grams of protein per pound of body weight). The exact amount needed depends on the person and their specific life circumstances.
  • FAT — Fat is vital to your health. Choosing healthy fat is key! There are two ways to estimate fat intake. It can be calculated as 20–35% of total caloric intake or it can be all remaining calories after we account for carbs and protein.
  • WATER — This is the most important macronutrient! Are you chronically dehydrated, like most of the population? Dehydration can lead to a reduction in athletic, metabolic, and cognitive functioning. An easy way to check for dehydration is to look at your urine color: Pale yellow is ideal, but any darker and you need some fluids! Aim for 8–16 cups per day (depending on gender, and age) and adjust based on your urine color.


Working with teenage athletes can be difficult at times, especially when addressing topics like dietary intake. There are many simple things we can do to promote positive change and keep our athletes safe at the same time. I encourage you to try these basic tips and start a discussion with your athletes and team.

If you are interested in learning more about macronutrients and the application of science-focused nutrition while working with athletes, check out the Coeus nutrition courses developed by registered dietitian Mary Ginnetti. Coeus courses were developed along-side the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) to meet the needs of high school cycling coaches. Coeus courses are also relevant to people interested in athletic nutrition, performance, or skills training.

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