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'Making Weight' Risky for Young Athletes

Some Sports May Encourage Unhealthy Weight-Control Habits in Children

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 7, 2005 - "Making weight" may breed unhealthy habits in young athletes feeling pressure to succeed in sports that reward leanness or bulk.

New recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) call for coaches, school administrators, parents, and doctors to discourage unhealthy dieting practices, such as food restriction, vomiting, diet-pill use, and voluntary dehydration in children participating in sports that encourage weight loss or weight gain.

Researchers say sports that emphasize leanness and/or competing at the lowest possible weight include:

  • Bodybuilding
  • Cheerleading
  • Dancing
  • Distance running
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Diving
  • Figure skating
  • Gymnastics
  • Martial arts
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Weight-class football
  • Wrestling

Other sports -- such as football, rugby, basketball, and power lifting -- emphasize gaining weight by increasing lean muscle mass.

Healthy Weight Control Urged

Researchers say the use of unhealthy weight-control methods to quickly shed or gain weight not only impairs athletic performance but may also increase the risk of injury and other medical complications.

In their new policy on healthy weight-control practices for young athletes, the AAP recommends that doctors who care for budding athletes be aware of healthy weight gain and weight loss methods and include a history of weight and eating patterns in all physical examinations of young athletes.

Other recommendations include:

  • Daily calorie intake for most athletes should consist of at least 2,000 calories from a variety of foods from all food groups, including plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • In sports in which weigh-ins are required, athletes' weight and body composition should be measured once or twice per year.
  • Male high school athletes should not have less than 7% body fat. Female athletes should get enough calories to meet daily energy needs and experience normal menstruation.
  • Weight-loss or weight-gain programs should be started early to permit gradual weight gain or loss over a realistic period and allow a change of 1.5% of one's body weight per week accompanied by appropriate changes in body fat and muscle. Such a weight loss plan should not be initiated before ninth grade.
  • Any athlete who loses a significant amount of fluid during sports should weigh in before and after practices or competitions; each pound of weight loss should be replaced with 1 pint of fluid containing carbohydrates and electrolytes, such as a sports drink, before the next practice or competition.
  • Weight loss through unhealthy practices -- including overexercising; using rubber suits, steam baths, or saunas; prolonged fasting; fluid reduction; vomiting; diet pills; laxatives; diuretics; stimulants; insulin; nutritional supplements; or other legal or illegal drugs and/or nicotine -- should be prohibited at all ages.
  • If weight gain is needed, then athletes should consult with their doctor and receive a referral for a dietitian.

The recommendations appear in the December issue of Pediatrics.

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