Fuel Up

Proper Nutrition for High School Athletes

A healthy and balanced diet ensures that a young athlete will get all the nutrients his or her body needs for energy, to build and repair muscle and to keep bones, joints, tendons and organs functioning properly. With ballpark estimates, a balanced diet should consist of 40% carbohydrate. 30% protein and 30% fat, but those needs vary based on the age, weight and goals of the individual athlete, and on the type and duration of the sports in which they participate. Many school districts have a dietician on staff who can be consulted for specific and individualized nutritional recommendations, but here are some beginning guidelines to help young athletes build a healthy diet and perform their best.

Pack in the Protein

Most athletes can tell you protein is a vital part of their diets because of its role in building and repairing muscle, yet many athletes still don’t consume enough of it. And while the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is set at .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, nutritionists agree that athletes should eat much more. According to Jenn Gargiulo, RDN, CSSD, athletes should consume somewhere between .55 and 1.0 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day; that’s between 82 and 150 grams for a 150-pound teenager, leaning toward the higher end of the range if sports practice lasts for several hours each day. Protein should come from lean sources like lean beef, white-meat chicken, fish, low-fat diary and eggs, or vegetarian options like beans and tofu, and should be consumed at every meal. It can also be supplemented with vegan or whey protein powders.

Good Carbohydrates Are Good for You

While low-carb diets are all the rage, young athletes who are already expending extra calories on the growth and development of their bodies before they even set foot on a soccer field or basketball court need carbohydrates for fuel, as carbs are the body’s primary source of energy. A diet rich in carbohydrates can increase performance in both endurance sports and sports that require short burst of activity because they increase glycogen stores in the muscles and liver. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Carbs are made up of fiber, starch and sugar. Fiber and starch are complex carbohydrates, which means they are high in nutrients and digest more slowly, which helps to keep blood sugar levels optimized. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that digests quickly, causing blood sugar spikes and crashes. Good sources of complex carbohydrates are whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat and whole wheat breads and pastas, beans, sweet potatoes and fiber-rich fruits like apples, berries and bananas.

Get Friendly with Healthy Fats

While most diets geared for athletes are low in trans-fats and saturated fats by design, it is imperative to consume healthy fats, which actually provide fuel for lower-intensity exercise, and are heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory. Sources of healthy fats include avocados, nuts and nut butters, flax and chia seeds and fatty fish like salmon. Fats to avoid come from fried foods, baked goods and processed snack foods. Athletes who are attempting to gain weight will often find adding more healthy fats to their diet helpful, as one gram of fat contains nine calories, versus four calories per gram of protein or carbohydrate. Young athletes are also often able to handle a higher-calorie diet, because in addition to the energy expenditure of their sports practices, they are also burning extra calories during growth spurts. Try sprinkling nuts on yogurt, adding peanut butter to apple or banana slices, smashing avocado onto a turkey sandwich or dipping whole-grain chips or crackers into guacamole.

Power Up Your Pre-Game Meals

Athletes should eat a balanced meal consisting of complex carbohydrates, protein and fruit or vegetables two to three hours before game time. For many high school athletes whose games or meets are after school, this means their lunch is going to be a very important meal, so teach kids not to skip lunch and to choose wisely. However, if the athletic event isn’t until the evening, having a meal right after school is also an option. Think grilled chicken and pasta with marinara sauce, an omelet with veggies and whole grain toast, a chicken breast or lean pork chop with brown rice or a baked potato and vegetables, or at turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce and tomato. 30 minutes prior to competition, athletes can have a snack high in carbohydrate with just a little fat and protein. Think a peanut butter and honey sandwich, a yogurt with granola or a banana or apple with nut butter. Anything too heavy will take too long to digest and make the athlete feel sluggish.

Power Down with Post-Game Meals

If you want to have the energy to get back out on the field again, what you eat post-game is just as important as what you eat pre-game. After exercise, muscles are like sponges, ready to soak up complex carbohydrates to refuel and protein to repair, and you should give them both within 30 to 60 minutes of that final whistle. If you’re able to sit down to a proper meal, fill your plate with 50% complex carbohydrates, 25% protein and 25% fruits and vegetables. However, if you’re jumping on the bus for a long ride home, you can still refuel on-the-go with high-protein, high-carb snacks that are easy to pack. Think pretzel chips with hummus, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Greek yogurt with fruit and honey or a single-serving carton of 2% chocolate milk, everyone’s favorite recovery drink, which packs eight grams of protein and 23 grams of carbohydrate into just an eight-ounce serving.


Proper hydration levels contribute directly to proper blood volume, and it is blood that circulates oxygen to the muscles. Just a two percent fluid loss can cause a decrease in athletic performance. To determine how much water to drink per day, non-athletes should divide bodyweight in pounds in half to get the recommended number of ounces of water needed per day. That is, a 150-pound teenager should drink 75 ounces. However, athletes can only use that number as a baseline; they need more water to stay properly hydrated. In the hour leading up to practice or competition, Gargiulo recommends an ounce of water per ten pounds of bodyweight; that 150-pound teen should consume 15 ounces. If exercising for longer than an hour, 10 ounces per 20 minutes of workout activity is recommended. If young athletes won’t drink plain water, try naturally flavored water, unsweetened herbal teas, a powdered multivitamin or a low-sugar sports drink.