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Best Carbohydrates for Teen Athletes

The Best Carbohydrates for Teen Athletes

Teen athletes live busy, fast-paced lives, and need the right fuel for their bodies in order to keep up. Check out this video and post to learn more about the best carbohydrates for teen athletes to consume during their day. 


Carbohydrates are one of the macronutrients that provide our bodies with energy. Among the energy-providing nutrients, carbohydrates are the easiest for our body to metabolize and use as a quick source of fuel. 

Athletes in particular need to eat carbohydrates to help support and give them the energy they need in both training and competition. This is why it is important for your athlete to continue to eat carbohydrates throughout the day.

Meals and snacks should contain some source of carbs to keep this fueling consistent. As a good rule of thumb, make sure half of your athlete’s plate is made up of carbohydrates at mealtimes. This not only gives them the fuel they need to perform, but it also ensures that they are getting enough calories in each day.

Best Carbohydrates for Teen Athletes


Carbohydrates can be found in a variety of foods. The food groups that contain carbohydrates are:

  • Grains 
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables 
  • Beans and legumes
  • Dairy 
  • Sweeteners
  • Sports drinks and products 

Your athlete should be focused on eating most of their carbohydrates from foods that also provide good nutritional value including fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Of the food groups listed above, grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and dairy also contain good nutritional value. These are the ones to focus on eating throughout the day to ensure a healthy, balanced diet.


On an average day, athletes should fuel up with nutrient dense carbohydrates throughout the day at every meal. 

In relation to their training, practicing, or performing, carbohydrates should be eaten before, during and after. This means that there is hardly a time when teen athletes should be intentionally avoiding carbohydrates.

It is less important for carbohydrates consumed before training, practicing or performing to be “nutrient dense” as the main point here is energy for their working bodies. Outside of this time though, getting nutrient dense carbs is important for their growing bodies and to help build healthy eating habits for later in life.


One of the most important nutritional benefits of “nutrient dense” carbohydrate sources is fiber. Consuming the right amount of fiber will keep your athlete fuller for longer after meals, which is helpful if they have a big appetite. Exposing young athletes to fiber rich foods is also important because it lays the foundation of a healthy diet that will serve them well into adulthood. 

Fiber is found in 100% whole grains and is the best choice when choosing breads, pastas, or rice. Fresh fruits and vegetables have a higher fiber content when the edible skins are left on to eat. Beans are an excellent source of fiber, no matter how you eat them. Nuts and seeds can also provide some fiber but read nutrition labels to be sure.


The one exception for choosing nutrient dense carbohydrates is right before or during practice or a competition. At this time, athletes should opt for foods higher in simple carbs (sugar), which are ideal for immediate energy use.

Consuming higher fiber carbs right before training or competing could cause tummy troubles and will slow down the digestion and usage of the energy from food.  Examples of simple carb choices perfect for eating before training include sports drinks, sports products (gummies and gels), honey, fruit juice, cereal bars, white bread, crackers, fig Newtons, and pretzels.


Here is a list of ideas for the best carbohydrates for teen athletes. All of these are nutrient dense choices and best for including throughout the day in meals and snacks. 


  • 100% whole grain bread
  • 100% whole grain pasta
  • Bean based pastas
  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole grain nutrition bars
  • Whole grain cereal
  • Whole grain tortilla chips
  • Popcorn
  • Puffed grain chips


All vegetables are good athletes but these provide more carbohydrate.

  • White potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Corn
  • Beets


All fruit can be a great choice for teen athletes. These are some convenient options for taking on the go.

  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Kiwi
  • Grapes
  • Dried fruits
  • Fruit juices

Beans, Legumes, Nuts, and Seeds

All beans can be a great addition to the teen athlete’s diet. Nuts and seeds have lower amount of carbohydrate but still contribute to total needs.

  • Chickpeas
  • Hummus
  • Lentils
  • Kidney peas
  • Black beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Edamame
  • Peas
  • Chia Seeds
  • Pistachios


  • Milk
  • Traditional and Greek yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Soy milk
The best carbohydrates for teen athletes and why they need them in their diet.

Because teens are still growing, they need carbs to support improvement in their sport and physical growth and development. Teen athletes should be enjoying eating carbohydrates throughout the day at each meal and snack. Right before or during competition or practice, they may need higher sugar, less nutrient-dense foods to promote performance. 

Watch these videos on more about fueling with carbs before, during and after training.

Is Your Teen Athlete Trying to Gain Weight?

If so, you’ve come to the right place. OSA has an online course written by Jenna Braddock, MSH, RDN, CSSD (Registered Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) designed specifically for teen athletes. It guides both teens and their parents on a step by step approach for how to gain weight in a healthy way. Join by clicking the button.

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