May 15, 2001 -- Before high school and college wrestlers can face their opponents in the ring, they must first vanquish one in the locker room -- the scales that determine whether they're eligible to compete in a given weight class. In order to make the weight they want, many of these young athletes are using fasting, dehydration, diet pills, and laxatives as ways to lose weight quickly.
How widespread is this potentially deadly practice? A recent study of wrestlers in Michigan high schools found 7 out of 10 used at least one possibly harmful weight loss method each week of the wrestling session -- and just over half of them used at least two methods each week. About a quarter of the young wrestlers lost 10 pounds or more during the season, and 11% fasted longer than 24 hours before a match.
The study was published in the May issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
"This study reinforces what we've known for years," lead author Robert Kiningham, MD, tells WebMD. "While previous studies have looked at elite, highly committed wrestlers, we looked at everyone. Disturbingly, we found the same percentage of harmful behaviors as previous studies of elite wrestlers, suggesting these behaviors are widespread."
Kiningham is an assistant clinical professor and director of the sports medicine fellowship program at the University of Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor.
Many wrestlers try to compete in an unrealistically low weight class because they believe this gives them a competitive advantage, says Doug Andersen, DC, nutrition consultant for West Coast Sports Performance and Sports Medicine Consultants in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and a nutritionist for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team.
"First, wrestlers should qualify for a sensible weight class," he says. "If you skip one meal the day beforehand in order to drop two or three pounds, that's one thing. But when someone tries to drop tremendous amounts of weight, 10 pounds or more, we're concerned. While they may not have an eating disorder in the strict sense, they certainly have disordered eating."
"In 1997 three healthy college-age men all died because they were trying to make weight for the wrestling team, using similar rapid-weight-loss regimens based on dehydration. Wrestlers put on nonpermeable clothing and exercise hard, and then don't rehydrate themselves. This is dangerous," says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center and an exercise physiologist.
Short-term studies have found rapid weight loss can lead to a decline in the ability to think clearly, loss of athletic strength and power, and mood changes, Heller says. No one knows if there are long-term effects, because long-term studies haven't been done.
The authors of the Michigan study conclude by saying, "Altering these entrenched behaviors will require a unified effort by coaches, administrators, parents, and wrestlers throughout the sport."
However, some coaches don't see any need for change.
"Wrestlers have a short-term goal, to make their weight," says Dick Bellock. "They may not eat for a day but we all skip meals once in awhile. Teenage kids get hungry. They make weight, they eat right afterward; that isn't necessarily binge eating."
Bellock wrestled in high school and college and is now the athletic director of McKay High School in Salem, Ore.
Bob Ferraro agrees.
"We already have safety measures in place," says Ferraro, executive director of the National High School Coaches Association, based in Easton, Pa. "Every wrestler must be examined by a physician, and the physician determines the weight class that wrestler will compete at. These issues have already been addressed."
Andersen, however, believes changes are needed.
"Today, wrestlers weigh-in hours before or the day before the match. They should have to weigh-in just beforehand. If someone had to wrestle in a dehydrated state, weak as a kitten, they wouldn't like it."
Since the data was collected for the Michigan study, the state has instituted a new program using mandatory weight standards based on a measured percentage of body fat. Kiningham hopes the new program will be effective in limiting pressures on young wrestlers to engage in unhealthy weight-loss behaviors in order to compete.