The Materials, The Builder, The Regulator: The Implications of Nutrition on Skeletal Development During Adolescence

In our previous blog we explored the impact of analysis in school sport and the impact on the coaching process, a coach’s philosophy and the pupil experience. We summarised by highlighting the importance of the pupil and their video analysis experience being at the heart of the coach-analyst decision making process. In this blog we explore skeletal development of adolescent athletes and the implications for their nutrition.

Despite its inert appearance, bone is a highly dynamic organ which is continuously adapting across our lifespan. Adolescence is a pivotal period in skeletal development during which approximately half of our total bone mass is accumulated, with 90% of peak bone mass is achieved by the age of 20 yrs.

Bone provides multiple functions; protecting the internal organs, allowing for movement and load-bearing, whilst serving as a storage depot for calcium homeostasis.  Bone development is a complex process with phases of growth (formation) and resorption. Nutrition plays a critical role in these processes. Therefore, providing the appropriate nutritional support to this process is essential, especially during adolescence.  

Nutrition’s role in supporting bone development is twofold. Key nutrients from our diet directly support the formation of new bone tissue, notably, calcium, protein, vitamin D and phosphorus. Indirectly, hormones play an important role in the remodelling process of bone, which are influenced by our diet. With the youth athlete perspective in mind, we are going to explore the direct role of nutrition and unique challenges for youth athletes which emphasise the importance of nutrition for skeletal development during this time of life.

Protein & Phosphorus: The Materials

Protein is an integral part of the organic matrix of bone, making up ~50% of bone tissues by volume and 1/3 of its mass. Therefore, adolescent athletes should ensure they consume enough protein to support the increased rate of bone turnover caused by maturation and athletic training. A daily protein intake between 1.4-2 g/kg. BM-1, evenly dispersed across the day, in 3 meals and a snack before bed would be sufficient to support optimal skeletal development in youth athletes.

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient which plays an important role in bone mineralisation and cell membrane health. Low levels of phosphorus can lead bone related diseases like rickets, however habitual diets tend to be point towards excess rather than phosphorus deficiency. Avoiding deficiency is recommended. This can be done through a diet which includes dairy, beans, nuts, meats or poultry.

Calcium: The Builder

Calcium is a major bone forming mineral with 99% of our body calcium stores found in bone tissue. Knowing the importance of calcium in muscle and nerve function, avoiding deficiency is essential.  Current recommendations in UK for youth are between 700-1000mg. Due to the increased rate of remodelling as a result of weight bearing exercise, 1000-1500mg maybe more relevant for youth athletes, particularly to avoid bone related injuries. Dietary sources include dairy products, dark leafy green vegetables, and some oily fish.

Vitamin D: The Regulator

Vitamin D plays an essential role in regulating both calcium and phosphorus absorption in the body, whilst supporting immune function and muscle regeneration. Despite its classification as a vitamin, it is primarily obtained through the sunlight exposure. Again, avoiding deficiency is essential with vitamin D, and daily recommendations would be between 1000-4000 IU/day throughout the winter months (November- March/ April) in the UK. Best dietary sources would be fatty fish (salmon, mackerel and trout), eggs, mushrooms and fortified products.

Energy Availability: 10am Tea break

Youth athletes face a myriad of changes in their biological and athletic development. These processes all require a enough intake of total energy from their diet to occur optimally. With impaired bone health being a founding pillar of the female athlete triad and relative energy deficiency, making sure that youth athletes meet their energy requirements is integral to support their health, skeletal development and athletic progression through school and youth sport.

In summary, adolesence is an important time period for the development and maturation of the skeletal system. As such, we should all (youth athlete, coaches, parents, teachers) be cognisant of the role and importance of nutrition in supporting optimal bone development. A more critical awareness of the implications of optimising the nutritional materials, builder and regulator for bone development during adolesence is important given the impact of these elements to the skeletal system. Underpinning these constructs is the foundation of energy availability that provides the fuel to the fire to optimise health, skeletal development and athletic progression through school and youth sport.

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