5 Ways That Workout Nutrition Should be Different For Young People and Children

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Well, this is awkward.

Here we are on Friday – the day that I normally deliver to you some exciting anecdote, video clip, audio interview or other form of multimedia fitness entertainment.

But I’m stuck out in the wilderness at the “Wildflower Triathlon”, with extremely limited bandwidth and an inability to bring you anything that remotely resembles “multimedia”.

So, here in all it’s unabashed glory, is an interesting text-based article (my apologies to you audio and video junkies).

I know that many of you have exercising children, or maybe plan on having athletic kids in the future, or heck, perhaps you just have an active nephew or niece.

And when it comes to healthy workout foods for kids and what children should eat during exercise, there’s quite a bit of confusion out there. So in this article, I’m going to give you 5 ways that workout nutrition should be different for young people and children.

Ready?

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Kids are not just little adults, and growing children who are strenuously exercising have several defining physiological characteristics that make them different than the older population. The following are 5 ways that training and racing nutrition should be different for kids and young active individuals (up to age 16).

1) Athletic girls can succeed on lower carbohydrate intake than athletic boys. In large nutritional surveys that have been done on young athletes ranging from 12-18 years old, the intake of female athletes is on average 3-4 grams per kilogram of body weight lower than male athletes. This seems to make sense, since studies in adult endurance athletes have shown that female endurance athletes tend to be able to oxidize more fat at higher intensities compared to men. An approximate level of carbohydrate intake that would be appropriate for a young athlete would be about 4 grams per kilogram in girls and 7 grams per kilogram in boys (remember there are 2.2 pounds in 1 kilogram). So a 90 pound young female athlete would need to eat around 165 grams of carbohydrate daily, or about 650 calories of carbohydrate.

2) Fat is the preferred exercise fuel in young athletes. In most studies, exercising children have shown 10-40% higher fat oxidation rates compared to exercising adults. Interestingly, very well trained exercising adults (such as Ironman triathletes) show these same high fat oxidation rates. While this shouldn’t be used as an excuse to “not eat” during exercise, it would be quite interesting to see studies of children given a higher fat intake prior to exercise compared to children given primarily carbs. I suspect that fueling children with avocados, coconuts, nuts and seeds may yield just as good results as filling them up with candy and energy bars.

3) Compared to exercising adults, exercising children burn lower amounts of storage carbohydrate, but higher amounts of carbohydrate from food sources. Rather than tapping into the body’s own carbohydrate stores during exercise, children tend to rely more upon carbohydrate sources from food. This is due to lower levels of the enzymes responsible for breaking down muscle carbohydrate to fuel, and is probably some type of carbohydrate conserving mechanism that leaves more storage carbohydrate for a child’s growth and development. While you might think that this should mean you make sure a child has adequate food available during a training session or race, since they’re less equipped to break down their own storage energy, this does not appear to be the case, as I point out below.

4) During exercise sessions 75 minutes or less, eating carbohydrates does not appear to give extra performance advantages in young athletes. As you learned earlier, children burn fat more efficiently than adults, and it appears that during exercise, this increased fat oxidation serves as a mechanism to stop any drop in blood glucose. Children’s bodies literally have the ability to downregulate the pathways responsible for converting carbohydrates into energy during exercise. Interestingly, free fatty acids, which indicate available fats to burn during exercise, increase in children during exercise, indicating a very strong ability of children to mobilize fat stores for energy and possibly even use energy sources that have higher amounts of fat. Once again, for exercising individuals who are under the age of 16, it may be beneficial to choose fat-based energy sources rather than sugar.

5) Regular adult sports drinks may not empty fast enough from a child’s stomach during exercise. In both children and adults, higher exercise intensities slow the rate at which fluids and fuels will pass from the stomach into the intestine, which means that less fuel is absorbed and utilized. However, this occurs to an even greater extent in children who are exercising at higher intensities, and the maximum amount of fluids (either water or a carbohydrate beverage) that a child can absorb per hour in these conditions will be approximately one bike-sized water bottle (about 20-24 ounces).

It would certainly be nice to see more research in the field of sports nutrition for young athletes. Specifically, we should be examining different mixes of carbohydrate and fat than are given to adults, and the rate at which those fuels can empty from the stomach, and be available for absorption and utilization. In the meantime, the young athlete should probably be eating a higher blend of fat before and during exercise, and female young athletes may benefit from lower carbohydrate intake than their male counterparts.

What do you think? What do you feed your kid during exercise? What do you think about healthy workout foods for kids? Share you comments, questions, and feedback below.

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16 thoughts on “5 Ways That Workout Nutrition Should be Different For Young People and Children

  1. Talia says:

    Would be really good to hear more about sports nutrition for kids. My 11 year old is a gymnast currently training 20 hours per week. I would like to feed him a nutritionally sound diet to support this level of training. Finding good information is hard. Your blog posts are easily my favourite when it comes to all things sport recovery, training and nutrition.

  2. Eddie Potter says:

    Is this still relevant information? And would the same apply for say a soccer player vs an endurance athlete?

    Regards,

    Eddie

    1. Yes, it's still totally relevant although for a soccer player you'll want a slightly higher amount of carbohydrate, especially in the evenings prior to competition to ensure that glycogen levels are full.

  3. Andy says:

    I've found this article is totally handy for everyone and whatever discussion you have made here about the difference of children and young people nutrition workout totally effective and should know to everyone. Thanks dude.
    adventure racing

  4. Peter Spangenberg says:

    Hi, just a quick comment: there are 2.2 lbs in 1 Kilogram, and not the other way round as you ppoint out in you your first paragraph.
    Sincerely,
    Dr. Peter Spangenberg
    Pediatrician

    1. Thanks Peter! I would be screwed without good proofreaders and smart guys like you!

  5. LJ says:

    I am interested in the article/book you gathered this information from….good to know the sources that are currently doing research in young children.

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      2. mark jones says:

        interesting article, Ben. Ive been wondering about this subject for a while as my 11yr old daughter is now training properly 3-4 x week as a swimmer.
        Rightly or wrongly what i take from your views is that we shouldn't be loading up children with supplements or a lot of additional food, except perhaps some fats (light) prior to exercise. I wonder though where this leaves the questions of recovery food (banana being the current article for her) and hydration. All the best. Mark

        1. One thing to bear in mind is that if kids burn fewer fed carbohydrates and storage glycogen during exercise, it's unlikely that post-workout recovery via carbohydrate replenishment is as important for kids. But we do know that due to smaller surface area per body mass, the hydration needs of children are more important than adults, before, during and after exercise.

  6. Armi Legge says:

    Hi Ben,
    Great article on nutrition for kids. Something else I think would be really great to mention is how nutritional deficiencies can ad up really quickly in young athletes too. Many people seem to think that just because we're young and eating a ton of food means we're getting everything we need.
    Thanks so much for the great work and good luck @ Wildflower!

    -Armi

  7. Deeonna says:

    Actually I find this information interesting because it may shed light on how to build a fitness plan for a child that is overweight or suffering from type 2 diabetes or hypertension. I imagine that the biochemisty in these children would be different but it's a better starting place that mimicing exercise and nutrition plans designed for adults.

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