The issue of body weight in young athletes should be treated sensitively as misguided remarks or advice may inadvertently result in an unhealthy obsession about their weight, body shape and food generally.
Clearly, young athletes who are a healthy weight for their build should not be encouraged to lose weight. If they are unhappy about their weight, the problem may be one of low self-esteem or being ill-matched to their sport. For example, children with a larger build would not be well-matched to thin-build sports such as distance running, gymnastics or ballet dancing.
The question as to whether overweight young athletes should be encouraged to lose weight is a tricky one and this should be discussed with a health professional. Much depends on their age, development stage, current weight and motivating reasons for losing weight.
This article considers the implications of weight loss for young athletes. These can be both positive and negative so it is essential that any decision to lose weight should be made with professional guidance.
Is there a link between a young athlete’s weight, body fat percentage and performance?
While improved performance is generally associated with lower-than-average body fat levels for many sports, there is certainly not a linear relationship between performance and body fat percentage. In other words, lower body fat levels are not always better. For each person, there is a range of body fat percentages at which they will perform at their best, outside of which their performance and health is likely to suffer. Young athletes should not be put under pressure to attain an unrealistic low body weight and body fat percentage. Being lean does not guarantee athletic success.
Should overweight young athletes be encouraged to lose weight?
Any decision to lose weight should be made with the advice of a professional – such as a doctor, nutritionist or dietitian. Nutritional needs during this time are particularly high and important nutrients that are essential to children’s health could be missed out.
Often, young athletes feel under pressure to lose weight to improve their performance and/ or improve their appearance. They may see the successes of leaner competitors and be tempted to lose weight. Or they may feel frustrated by recent poor performance and perceive their weight to be the limiting factor for success in their sport. Sometimes, a decision to embark on a weight loss regime may be triggered by a careless remark by well-meaning coaches or teammates.
However, there is a risk that, without proper help, a desire to lose weight may develop into obsessive eating and exercise behaviour that could put a young athlete’s performance and health at risk. Rather than focusing on weight loss, parents and coaches should try to build the young athlete’s self esteem and help them feel more positive about their weight and performance. Praising their successes and emphasising their strengths should help reduce undue anxiety about their weight.
On the other hand, for young athletes who are genuinely overweight, losing a few pounds through sensible eating and increased activity is likely to have a positive impact on their performance and health. It is important that they receive accurate information about nutrition and positive support from their coach, family and friends.
How can I evaluate a young athlete’s weight?
It can be difficult to evaluate whether young athletes have a weight problem. As a starting point, you can calculate their body mass index (their weight in kg divided by the square of their height in metres) and compare with the children’s BMI-for-age charts published by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (see http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/index.html). This will tell you whether their body weight is higher than average for their height and age.
But BMI is not perfect. For example, it’s very common for children to gain weight quickly — and for their BMI to go up — during puberty. They can also have a high BMI if they have a large frame or a lot of muscle, not excess fat. BMI does not differentiate between muscle and fat so it can be misleading when used with young athletes. Many of the world’s top athletes have high BMIs due to their high muscularity, which would classify them overweight. Thus, a young athlete who is relatively heavy due to a high muscle mass may have a high BMI for his or her age. And a child with a small frame may have a normal BMI but too much body fat.
To determine whether they have excess fat, further assessment would be needed. This might include bioelectrical impedence or skinfold thickness measurements.
If you think a young athlete has gained too much weight or is too thin, you should consult a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian or other health professional to help you decide whether they really have a weight problem. They may ask questions about the athlete’s health, level of physical activity, and eating habits, as well as family medical history. They can put all this information together to determine whether there’s a weight or growth problem.
A healthy weight loss strategy for young athletes
It is important that any weight loss goal is realistic and achievable for the young athlete’s build and level of maturity. You should discourage strict dieting, diuretics, excessive exercise and the use of saunas as weight loss methods as these can be very dangerous for young athletes. In the short term, these methods may results in dehydration, low muscle glycogen stores, fatigue and poor performance. In the long-term, these weight loss methods may lead to a repetitive cycle of weight loss and gain, food or weight obsession or disordered eating.
For most young athletes, the best thing you can do is to encourage a balanced diet and regular physical activity. Talk to them about healthy eating and exercise, teach by example and let them make their own decisions about food. Don’t put them on a ‘diet’. Instead make healthy changes to what they eat.
But for competitive athletes who need to reduce their body fat in order to get to the next competitive level, the off-season or holidays is the best time to do it. During this time, they will be able to cut calories and lose weight sensibly without it having a negative effect on their performance or health.
If they try to lose weight in-season, they risk poor performance because the combination of strenuous training and cutting calories places a lot of stress on the body. They won’t be able to train hard day after day on too few calories. Cutting calories means that they will not get enough carbohydrates to replenish their muscle fuel stores. This can lead to chronic fatigue, muscle loss, and under-performance. Too few calories in combination with an intense training schedule can also reduce immunity and leave them susceptible to illnesses.
9 tips for maintaining a healthy weight
- Build self-esteem
If you can build young athletes’ self-esteem and help them feel more positive about themselves they are more likely to make healthier food choices. Make a point of praising their accomplishments, emphasise their strengths, and encourage them to try new skills to foster success. Never label them fat or tell them to lose weight.
- Set a good example
Young people are more likely to copy what their parents do than what they say. They should see that you exercise and eat a balanced diet. Share mealtimes as often as possible and eat the same meals. Do praise them when you see them eating healthily
- Don’t ban any foods
Banning a food increases their desire for it and makes it more likely that they will eat it in secret. Allow all foods but explain that certain ones should be eaten only occasionally or kept as occasional treats. If they know that they can eat a little of their favourite food every day, they will stop thinking of it as a forbidden food and then won’t want to binge on it.
- Provide healthy snacks
Instead of biscuits, crisps and chocolate, make sure there are healthier alternatives to hand. Fresh fruit, low fat yoghurt, wholemeal toast, low fat milk, a few nuts, vegetable cruditees, rice cakes, and wholegrain breakfast cereals are good choices.
- Get them moving more
Although young athletes train and play sport, they may be quite inactive the rest of the time. Look for opportunities to increase their daily activity. For example, encourage them to walk or cycle to and from school. Try to increase the amount of exercise you do together as a family – swimming, playing football, a family walk or bike ride.
- Don’t snack and view
Discourage eating meals or unhealthy snacks while watching television. Because their mind will be on the television and not on the food, they won’t notice when they are full up or not hungry any more.
- Ditch the fizz
Drinking water rather than sugary fizzy drinks is a good way of saving calories, and water won’t rot your teeth or leach calcium from your bones.
- Follow the one-third rule
Vegetables or salad should fill at least one third of your plate. This will help satisfy hunger as well as providing essential nutrients.
- Don’t wolf down your food
Eating your food slowly and in a relaxed state of mind will curb your desire to eat more then you need. According to research, scoffing your meal means that the satiety centre in the brain doesn’t receive the right signals and explains why you may eat more than need.