Ask any youth athlete and they’ll tell you that they’re supposed to eat 5 portions of fruit of vegetables each day and they usually know that it’s needed to keep them healthy. But what most athletes (and parents!) don’t realise, is just how important they are to sports performance too!
This was something we talked about in one of our recent articles where we looked at the importance and struggles of getting plenty of fruit and veg into teenagers diets.
While every single nutrient plays an essential role in keeping athletes healthy, developing normally, and playing at their best, we’ve picked out the 3 key ones to health and performance for young athletes: calcium, vitamin D and iron.
Calcium is the most important nutrient needed for the formation and strength of bones and most of the bodies bone growth happens during adolescence. This means that what you eat during your teenage years is not only not only key for strong bones now, but it’s going to set you up for later life too . The better your diet is now, the healthier and stronger your bones will be when you’re older.
To make sure the body has enough calcium to build bigger and stronger bones, youth athletes have much higher calcium needs . Recent research, however, suggests that many teen athletes do not get enough calcium from their diets  and this puts them at a much greater risk of bone injuries, fractures and breaks .
Dairy products are the best sources of calcium so are great foods to include in the diet. Other options if you don’t eat dairy products are dark green leafy veg like spinach and kale, as well as fish where you eat the bones and fortified foods such as bread and cereals.
Most athletes know just how important calcium is to healthy bones, but what they don’t realise is that it works hand in hand with vitamin D too.
Vitamin D, or the sunshine vitamin as its often known, is needed so that the body can absorb the calcium it gets from food . Not enough vitamin D in the body and your body can’t get absorb the calcium, meaning it has to be taken out of your bones to be used elsewhere.
Less calcium in your bones is only going to mean one thing too; much higher risk of fractures, breaks and other injuries and time spent out of the game.
The problem with vitamin D is that it’s made in our skin when the skin is exposed to sunlight. For athletes living in Northern Europe (especially the UK!) and northern US states, the sun is at the wrong angle in the sky and the UV rays aren’t strong enough to make any vitamin D during the winter months! Or, if you regularly training indoors, your body won’t have a chance to make any vitamin D. Although some vitamin D can be found in foods like oily fish, egg yolks and mushrooms, fortified foods and supplements are often the best option for the athletes mentioned above.
Iron plays a very important role in transporting oxygen around the body and in producing energy; both vital for athletes to maintain their performance levels. Not only that, but its essential to cognitive development in teens too, so it’s a key one for keeping the brain healthy .
Iron deficiency is very common in youth athletes, especially in females with up to 50% reported to be deficient . This is because female athletes have greater iron losses each month during their menstrual cycle. Iron deficiency can cause tiredness and lethargy, increased feelings of effort and poor recovery  so to avoid the negative impact on performance include plenty of red meat, dark green leafy veg, legumes and dried fruit like apricots.
Remember: the plant-based sources of iron can’t be absorbed or used by the body as effectively so be sure to get plenty in the diet and combine with foods high in vitamin C to increase absorption too and avoid drinking tea and coffee at the same time.
Looking for a convenient and delicious way to get all the nutrients you need? Then why not try PRO-TEEN Powder. Packed with 16 different vitamins and minerals (including the 3 mentioned here!), it’s a tasty way to ensure you’re fuelling your body right.
- Hannon, M., Flueck, J., Gremeaux, V., Place, N., Kayser, B. and Donnelly, C., 2021. Key Nutritional Considerations for Youth Winter Sports Athletes to Optimize Growth, Maturation and Sporting Development. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 3.
- Martinez, S., Pasquarelli, B. N., Romaguera, D., Arasa, C., Tauler, P., and Aguilo, A. (2011). Anthropometric characteristics and nutritional profile of young amateur swimmers. J. Strength Cond. Res.25, 1126–1133. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d4d3df
- Sale C, Elliott-Sale KJ. Nutrition and Athlete Bone Health. Sports Med. 2019;49(Suppl 2):139-151. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01161-2
- Sandstrom, G., Borjesson, M., and Rodjer, S. (2012). Iron deficiency in adolescent female athletes–is iron status affected by regular sporting activity? Clin. J. Sport Med.22, 495–500. doi: 10.1097/JSM.0b013e3182639522
- Tarnowski, C., 2021. Are my iron levels affecting my performance?. [online] My Sport Science. Available at: <https://www.mysportscience.com/post/iron-levels-and-performance> [Accessed 8 November 2021].