How many calories do youth athletes need?
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How many calories do youth athletes need?


If you ask most parents, they'll know the recommended number of calories that an adult should be eating each day. But do you know how many your young athlete should be eating?

Clue: This is not as simple as energy in vs. energy out.

Active children need to balance high energy expenditure to meet the demands of their sport and at the same time, take in enough food to fuel periods of rapid growth and development. 

The exact number of calories a young athlete needs to eat will vary from athlete to athlete, depending on a number of factors that can make pinpointing a specific a number tricky, such as:

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Genetics
  • Activity 
  • Life Stage (age)
  • Environmental 

This list could continue, but we'll leave it here - these 'individual' factors all contribute to the variation in individual calorie needs.

We often get asked... Are calories bad for you?

Unfortunately, the humble calorie has been subjected to conflicting messages and a negative perception that has created a drive for low calorie diets and low-calorie foods.

This might have been further highlighted with the new UK government rules requiring calorie information to be displayed on menus and food labels in restaurants, takeaways and cafes for all large businesses (small business are being urged to also adopt the rules) from Wednesday 6 April 2022[1]. The aim here is to tackle the rapid rise in obesity rates, but this change has received conflicting opinions. Some professionals are worried that labelling these so called 'fear foods' might be perceived as either ‘good ‘or ‘bad’, and meals will be selected on their calorie value - not the food nutrient value.

A calorie does not determine the ‘healthiness’ of a food but only the potential energy stored within it. As fat has a higher calorie content than protein and carbohydrates, it is easy to recognise why fat and high fat diets have been deterred in the past.

The thing is, we consume ‘foods’ and not just single nutrients, and these foods have a much more complex make up known as the ‘food matrix’. The food matrix contains nutritional factors such as fibre that is hard to breakdown and therefore will reduce the number of calories up taken in the gut [2]. Additionally, protein can increase the bodies temperature causing a phenomenon called Dietary Induced Thermogenesis (DIT) [3] that means the body is burning extra calories just by ingesting them.

However, it still remains that if high calorie foods are eaten regularly, along with low activity (bodies energy expenditure is low) there will be an increase in the body’s fat mass, which can lead to an unhealthy weight gain, and increased risk of ill health [4].

To understand this, we first must explain, what are calories?
A calorie is not a nutrient but a unit of energy within a food, drink or consumed substance. One calorie is defined as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through one °C (also known as 4.1868 joules) [5].

Broken down into single macronutrients:

  • Protein contains 4 calories per gram
  • Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram
  • Fat contains 9 calories per gram

Now you understand what calories are, we now need to explain how many calories youth athletes may require.

A credible way to start looking at calorie needs is to use a formula such as the Harris Benedict [6] that forms an estimated need based on height, weight, age and activity levels.

While this is a good way to form a starting number, you may find that that your youth athlete is currently consuming many more or less while feeling fit and healthy. A little deviation is never a worry, but if you are concerned, or simply interested to see what you are currently eating a useful method is to use an app such as MyFitnessPal. When you log each meal on the app a nutritional and macronutrient breakdown will be calculated. This can aid your understanding of how many calories (and from what foods) are being consumed.

The issue is: Everyone is different, even down to the sports they play which impacts their calorie requirements. 

We must think about life outside of purely eating to fuel sport, as lifestyles, habits, and personal characteristics all play a role in the amount of energy (calories) used and what is required.

The body requires calories to maintain all of its daily functions, such as keeping the heart beating, or digesting our food, to name just a couple. We require energy from calories, every second of every day.

The energy used for these required functions is known as the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), and without any additional energy intake the body requires calories from a nutrient rich diet to maintain these functions just to sustain life [7].

The brain uses up a considerable amount of energy- approximately 20% of the daily calorie needs to just help you think! [8].

On top of the BMR, youth athletes have to ensure that their individual sporting needs are catered for with additional calories. Calories will aid all factors for youth athletes from their training, performance, and recovery. All of these things plus more will change the caloric needs.

A 15-year-old female requires around 2,300 calories and the average male requires around 2,600 calories per day, before any sporting demands are even undertaken [9]. Once you add their sporting needs to the mix those requirements can increase by 300-1000 extra calories.

It can be hard to work out a defined number of calories per day as their body is growing. We know that it is important to provide optimal nutrition to build the foundations for lifelong health, because a good nutrition strategy supports normal growth and development, and because youth athletes are putting additional stresses upon the body.

Many young people or parents of youth athletes can struggle to sustain a well-balanced diet that provides the right level of calories all the time. Therefore, some parents decide to implement a supplement into their child’s diet to ensure that the calories ingested provide a high nutritive value to top-up a food first approach.

On average youth athletes require approx. 2,500 to 3,500 calories per day to support growth, recovery and fuel the needs of the individual sport. However, before getting over concerned if your youth athlete is consuming way more or less it is recommended to consider a few questions:

  • Are they recovering well?
  • Are they performing well in sports?
  • Are they happy/enthusiastic?
  • Are they exhausted all the time?

If the answer in ‘No’, to some of all of the above it is advised to seek advice to increase the calorie intake from nutrient rich foods to support the youth athletes needs.

If you want any help with designing a food-first meal plan, speak to our nutrition team today.

Youth Sports Nutrition mission and products

Youth Sports Nutrition products comprise of whole food ingredients that have been carefully selected to aid young athlete’s needs, taste great and add convenience to a busy schedule with calorie intakes at the forefront of formulation. The powdered formulas enable quick solubility in water or milk, to form a delicious nutrient packed shake that you can enjoyed pre or post exercise- helping aid recovery and increase energy.

Youth Sport Nutrition always recommended to opt for whole foods first, with supplements such as PRO-TEEN and NUTRI-TEEN shake and NUTRI-TEEN bars a nutrient packed way to top-up on high-quality nutrients, designed to support those youth athletes faced with a tight schedule.

Natalie Rouse

First-Class Honours degree in Human Nutrition (BSc Hons), Master of Research in Performance Nutrition and Socio-culture (MRES), Registered and accredited Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition (ANutri), and Nutritional Consultant and Nutritional Research Scientist (RSci).  


[1] New calorie labelling rules come into force to improve nation’s health - GOV.UK (

[2] Effects of Dietary Fiber and Its Components on Metabolic Health - PMC (

[3] Diet induced thermogenesis | Nutrition & Metabolism | Full Text (

[4] Health Risks of Overweight & Obesity | NIDDK (

[5] calorie | unit of measurement | Britannica

[6] Harris-Benedict Calculator (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) (

[7] Basal Metabolic Rate - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

[8] Does The Brain Burn Calories? - NeuroTray

[9] SACN Dietary Reference Values for Energy - GOV.UK (

[10] nutrition-requirements.pdf

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