Healthy Kids : Don't Overfeed Young Athletes

Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

Kids are back in school, and back on the playing fields. For football players in particular this can mean a new focus on diet and a different way of eating. But coaches and parents of school-age athletes of all ages and sports tend to allow and encourage increased calorie consumption, with the assumption that kids are exercising more and therefore need to increase their intake. This may be true in some cases, but the question is where do they get these extra calories and how will this affect them not just for a middle school volleyball season, but for the rest of their lives.

I spoke with the mother of a football player at a local high school. Her son is a decent athlete--a sophomore starting on the JV team. He is very tall, and a healthy weight by scientific and medical standards for his stature--not underweight at all. If you compare him to the majority of his classmates who are, as we know is the case for our entire Valley population, mostly overweight and obese, he may seem relatively slim, but has good muscle tone and development. His mother shares, "Every time the coaches see me at the games or practices, they tell me to feed my son more. 'Feed him peanut butter jelly sandwiches every chance you get! Just feed him!' This summer he actually gained 20 pounds with a trainer, by eating protein shakes and working out a lot. It was hard for him to eat enough to gain that much so quickly. I feel like we have to apologize that he isn't the kind of kid who can scarf down a whole pizza himself. He just gets full. The coaches congratulated him for his 20 pound weight gain and told him to gain 20 more! I guess they want him to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because their mantra is 'eat more carbs, protein and fat.'"

Miriam Pena, a Harlingen-based Registered Dietician has some concerns about this kind of bulking up, especially during crucial years of growth and development. "Excess protein and carbohydrates can have a negative impact on our health. Young athletes might need extra calories from these nutrients but according to their calorie needs (which range depending on their age, height, whether they are at a healthy weight to begin with and other factors) and in moderation. Carbohydrates such as whole grains are healthy carbohydrates and provide a good source of energy, however they turn into sugar in the body and too much leads to excess calorie intake.,p> On the other hand, while protein is crucial in our diet for tissue repair and helps you move and bend, it is a misconception that athletes need to overload on protein. Muscle mass increases with an adequate amount of good exercise. The body only uses what it needs and excretes the rest. Too much protein can lead to kidney dysfunction. Include carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, beans, whole grain cereals and pasta, and rice daily with your meals. Also, protein sources from egg, chicken, turkey, nuts and low-fat milk products should be consumed. Check out website to know how many calories you should be consuming."

The kind of extreme weight gain often encouraged for high school athletes can have ramifications for the future health of these youngsters. Some of the long-term effects can include excessive weight gain (obesity), eating disorders, and more importantly form habits of eating a high carbohydrate, high fat, high protein diet into their adult lives when most of these kids will not be training for football and will not even be physically active. Just getting used to consuming that many calories and that extra bulk can lead to bad habits that will cause chronic diseases in the not so faraway future (like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer).

According to a study published by researchers from the University of Delaware, Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise, "Student athletes and their advisors often are misinformed or have misconceptions about sports nutrition. Proper nutrition for young athletes is critical not only to their athletic success, but more importantly to their growth, development, and overall health. Nutritional recommendations should be based on the most current scientific data." (Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care: May 2009 -- Volume 12 -- Issue 3 -- p 304-309)

Adolescent participation in team sports is generally a positive thing. It has been linked to all kinds of good outcomes including academic performance, higher self-esteem, lower likelihood of drug and alcohol use, etc. But when the pressure to win outweighs the immediate and future health of the student, we need to re-examine our priorities as coaches, educators and parents. This is particularly true considering the vast majority of middle school and high school athletes will not even go on to play college sports, much less professional athletics. Let's encourage our kids to be active, and to make healthy food choices so they can continue to live a healthy, active life beyond high school. Let's prepare them for their future, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)

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