The recent deaths of three college wrestlers, who were all engaged in extreme weight-loss practices, shocked the nation. Yet health professionals have been warning athletes about the dangers of these "weight-cutting" tactics for decades.
And the problem isn't limited to collegiate competitors. Many younger athletes use unhealthy weight-loss tactics, "particularly in sports in which thinness or 'making weight' is judged important to success," notes the American Academy of Pediatrics in its statement "Promotion of Healthy Weight-Control Practices in Young Athletes."
These sports include bodybuilding, cheerleading, dancing, distance running, diving, figure skating, gymnastics, horse racing, rowing, swimming, youth football and wrestling.
"Some athletes may use extreme weight-loss practices that include over-exercising; prolonged fasting; vomiting; using laxatives, diuretics, diet pills, other . . . drugs and / or nicotine; and use of rubber suits, steam baths and / or saunas," the statement says. "Many athletes are secretive about these potentially harmful practices."
Most kids who use these tactics "think being as skinny as possible will help them succeed at their sport," says William L. Risser, a Houston pediatrician who is lead author of the academy's statement. "But being undernourished while trying to compete hurts performance."
Parents need to be sensitive when discussing the issue with young athletes, since eating behavior can descend into an issue of control--particularly with teens.
"Kids don't think they'll ever die, and they could care less about long-term health risk," says Josephine Connolly, a registered dietitian and clinical instructor of family medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Active, growing youngsters need more nutrients than adults do, Connolly says. "If they don't eat enough to fuel their [athletic activity] and their need to grow," she says, their bodies "will start breaking down muscle mass for energy."
Young athletes also are at greater risk of dehydration than adults are, since kids are less tolerant of heat, says Leslie Bonci, a registered dietitian at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.
"The No. 1 sports nutrition priority is hydration," Bonci says. "I tell kids to drink 10 to 14 ounces, or gulps, of fluid one to two hours before their event. About 10 to 15 minutes before activity, they should drink some more. Then, every 10 to 15 minutes during activity they should drink three to four gulps. Within a half-hour after the event, they need to drink at least 16 ounces."
While cold water is an excellent choice, youngsters may want to drink more if the liquid is flavored. Diluted fruit juice, sports drinks or almost any fluid a child will drink are fine. "Get your child a water bottle that he or she thinks is cool," she says, "and keep it filled."
Teach young athletes to "eat to compete" by consuming these nutrients, say Bonci and Connolly, who are spokeswomen for the American Dietetic Assn.:
* Carbohydrates: The main fuel for working muscles, carbohydrates should make up 50% to 55% of a young athlete's diet. Enriched bread, cereals, rice, pasta, fruits and vegetables are all important sources.
* Protein: Active, growing youngsters need 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight--in contrast to adult's needs of about 0.5 to 0.6 grams per pound of body weight. One serving of meat, which is about the size of a computer mouse, has about 21 grams of protein. Encourage young people who are vegetarians to eat dairy products and eggs and to consume protein-rich plant foods such as soy products, nuts and beans.
* Fat: Important for growth and athletic performance, fat should make up about 25% of a young athlete's diet. Active kids can choose low-fat foods instead of fat-free foods and piggyback fats with protein by eating foods that contain both nutrients, such as peanut butter or low-fat cheese.
* Vitamins and minerals: Most youngsters can get what they need by eating a wholesome variety of foods.
If young athletes need to lose weight, "they should do so off-season so it doesn't compromise performance and health," says pediatrician Risser.
"If your child tells you that the coach wants him or her to lose or gain weight, ask how much weight, over what period of time and by what means," Risser says. "Then talk with the coach. If the coach is unreasonable, ask your pediatrician to help advocate at the school for healthy weight control practices."
* "Play Hard, Eat Right: A Parent's Guide to Sports Nutrition for Children" is available for $10.95 plus shipping through the American Dietetic Assn.'s Web site, http://www.eatright.org, or by calling (800) 745-0775.
* ADA's Consumer Nutrition hot line, (800) 366-1655, offers referrals to sports nutritionists.
* The American College of Sports Medicine has statements on weight loss in wrestlers and the "female athlete triad" (eating disorders, delay or interruption of menstrual cycles and osteoporosis). For a free copy, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to ACSM, P.O. Box 1440, Indianapolis, IN 46206.
* Fitness runs Mondays in Health.
* HEALTHFUL EATING: Eat your fruits and vegetables, and don't forget the water. S4
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* Food Allergy Network: (800) 929-4040. Web site: http://www.foodallergy.org
* American Dietetic Assn. Nutrition hotline: (800) 366-1655 in English and Spanish. Web site: http://www.eatright.org
* American Heart Assn.: (800) AHA-USA1. Web site: http://www.americanheart.org
* American Diabetes Assn.: (213) 966-2890 serving California and Nevada. Web site: http://www.diabetes.org
* Milk Processor Education Program: (800) WHY-MILK. Web site: http://www.whymilk.com