A National Alliance for Youth Sports resource helping coaches, parents and administrators provide the best youth sports experiences for children.
Dieting Dangers: Monitoring what your young athlete is eating
By Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN
A healthy diet is a good thing for young athletes, as it will provide the optimal fuel they need for peak performance, on and off the field.
In an ironic twist, detrimental dieting often begins with a switch to healthier eating, like cutting back on sweets or giving up soda. While these are undoubtedly healthy measures, they can morph into an unhealthy cycle of under-eating and under-fueling, or even binging, weight gain, and more dieting. The line between healthy and unhealthy eating is blurred when healthy attempts at crowding out the bad stuff turn into skipping meals, eliminating certain food groups, and significantly slashing calories.
Some athletes believe they need to lose weight to improve their athletic performance—whether that is a reality or not. True, some athletes carry extra weight and could stand to lose a few pounds, but others are fine just the way they are. Also true is the idea that in some sports being leaner optimizes performance. However, this is not the rule for every athlete or every sport, so it’s important to take a realistic view.
For example, if your athlete comes from a stocky heritage and she’s a dancer, it’s not likely that she will be able to lose weight and become thin in a way that is healthy. Likewise, athletes who are genetically thin will have difficulty bulking up for the football team. Figuring out the best weight for your athlete’s optimal performance is the best approach.
Two important things to remember: (1) Whatever the reason for dieting, it’s often a short-term solution that ignores the long-term impact. (2) Research indicates that a concern with and focus on body weight predicts future dieting and disordered eating in teens.
The pressure—from coaches, the media, peers, and even you, perhaps—to be lean and fit and to excel in a sport makes your young athlete more susceptible to dieting. Some young athletes engage in weight-control behaviors despite knowing how important a healthy diet and long-term health are to their sports success. Young athletes who participate in sports that emphasize leanness—such as running, gymnastics, or lightweight rowing—may be more inclined to use unhealthy weight-loss tactics than athletes in other sports, but we need to learn more in this area.
“One of the most common patterns for young athletes is to sleep through breakfast, eat a salad for lunch, try to perform at their sport after school, become light-headed or overly tired, come home starving, overeat, get mad at themselves, get up the next day, and start all over,” says Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian, author, and well-known Boston-based sports nutritionist. Instead, Clark encourages athletes to fuel by day and lose weight by night. “Eating less at the end of the day, by knocking off 100 to 200 calories, allows athletes to lose weight while sleeping, not during the day when they’re going to school and playing a sport,” says Clark. “It’s hard to lose weight and have energy to exercise,” she warns. “Chip away the calories, a little bit at a time, by eating less after dinner, and ask yourself, ‘Do I want to be leaner, or do I want to eat more?’”
Some of the methods young people use to lose weight, such as skipping meals, fasting (going long periods without eating), using meal substitutes such as nutrition shakes, and taking diet pills, laxatives, or diuretics, are considered unhealthy and are associated with an increased risk for disordered eating. You may be surprised to know that over 50% of teen girls and 33% of teen boys use these unhealthy tactics to control or lose weight. The kicker? These methods are associated with weight gain, not weight loss.
In a 2012 study of middle school and high school teens, researchers found significant weight gain in both boys and girls over a 10-year period when unhealthy weight loss tactics, especially skipping meals and fasting, were used. While this research wasn’t athlete-specific, it speaks to the tendency of teens to use drastic measures to lose weight. And the research is clear on dieting—it backfires.
While eventual weight gain may be one of the complications of dieting, there may be other side effects for your athlete. For one, the association between dieting and disordered eating is real. In a 2006 study, researchers found that teens who engaged in unhealthy dieting practices were more likely to binge eat and use dangerous methods, such as vomiting and laxative abuse, to control their weight 5 years later.
Not all athletes will develop an eating disorder just because they go on a diet. But other significant nutritional complications may occur. Desirable levels of nutrients—particularly iron, calcium, and vitamin D, but others as well—may be compromised, especially if the athlete skips meals or cuts foods out of her diet. Eating less means athletes get fewer nutrients during the day, especially if they don’t eat alternatives to the foods they’re excluding.
Athletes can experience anemia, fatigue, and a higher risk of illness and infection when the daily intake is low in nutrients. Some athletes may see a short-term improvement in performance when they follow a diet, especially if some weight reduction is needed, but the long-term impact of insufficient energy and nutrients to the body may negatively affect athletic performance by lowering oxygen uptake in the muscles and reducing speed.
As you can probably guess, my advice on diets is to stay away from them, because they can lead to cyclical dieting, disordered eating, and eventually even an eating disorder. However, knowledge is power, and the more you know about the effects of dieting and the different diets your athlete may be trying, the better able you will be to monitor your athletes’ diet and to intervene when their eating becomes detrimental or even dangerous.
Your Food Attitudes and Your Kids’ Eating Behavior
Your children tend to mimic your eating habits from a young age, whether those habits are good or bad. If you skip meals, it’s more likely that they will, too. If you are frequently on a diet, chances are that they will go on one at some point, too. And if you are unhappy with your children’s weight or shape, it’s more likely that they will also be unhappy with it. In a 2010 study of moms and teens, researchers found that teens who had a mom who was worried about the teens’ weight were more likely to try to lose weight 5 years later. Furthermore, if you’re worried about your children’s weight, you may restrict or limit their food or encourage them to diet, either of which may send them down the road of disordered eating.
Dieting is dangerous. And you have the power to influence whether your children adopt healthy or unhealthy eating habits. Get good habits started at a young age and your athletes will be on firmer ground when they are faced with the temptation to diet.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete by Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN. Kids have their own nutritional needs - especially athletic kids. Yet most young athletes aren't eating properly to compete. Eat Like a Champion will help their parents tailor diets for training, competition, and even off-season. Buy Eat Like a Champion on Amazon: http://amzn.com/0814436226
Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete by Jill Castle
Proper nutrition is crucial for athletic success, but are your young athletes giving their bodies enough time to digest and absorb those vital nutrients before taking the field?
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