Eating Disorders and Healthy Sports Nutrition for Adolescents


It is estimated that nearly 38 million children and adolescents in the United States participate in organized sports each year and it is widely recognized that participating in sports can be beneficial for healthy growth and development.1, 2 Sport helps to build self-esteem, improve physical conditioning, allow space to practice unique skill sets, teach the value of teamwork, build healthy bones and muscles, control weight, and potentially improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels. 1, 2 However, for adolescents who struggle with anxiety, depression and perfectionism, the pressure of athletic competition can cause severe mental and physical stress. When paired with the cultural ideals for thinness and achieving an ideal body type, adolescent athletes can be at a higher risk for developing disordered eating.111542033_984826828203847_5447071866058583464_n

In recent years, it has become more known that body image problems and eating disorders are common among young athletes. As discovered in a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, more than one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms that placed them at risk for the development of an eating disorder.1 Most times these disordered behaviors and symptoms are related to misinformation, preoccupation or restriction of food in the hopes of improving athletic performance or controlling body type. For this reason, screening, early diagnosis, aggressive management and most importantly prevention of eating disorders in adolescent athletes is very important.2

One group of people that have close contact with adolescent athletes, are their coaches. According to literature by Bonnie Spear, as many as 90% of coaches have no formal training on the nutritional needs of athletes. She writes, “misinformation, as well as heavy marketing by supplement manufacturers often cause coaches and parents to recommend unhealthy and potentially dangerous nutritional practices.”2 Given that the development of disordered eating in adolescents can be influenced by the messaging that they are surrounded by, it is important for the athletes themselves, their coaches and their parents to have basic knowledge of proper needs for active adolescents.

What does proper nutrition look like for an adolescent athlete? Overall, if adolescents are well hydrated and properly fueled, they will be able to get more out of their practice and daily physical activity than if they are not nutritionally prepared. Below are couple of nutrition categories that contribute to the proper fueling of an active adolescent.

Energy – In order to meet the nutritional needs for physical activity, health, growth and development, the diet of a training adolescent should consist of 55% of the total energy coming from carbohydrates, 12-15% from protein and 25-35% coming from fat.2

Carbohydrates – Energy from carbohydrates can be released into exercising muscles up to three times as fast as energy from fat, and therefore carbohydrates are the preferred fuel for working muscles. 2 As we are active, our bodies convert carbohydrates into glucose for immediate usage, yet only a limited amount of carbohydrates can be stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. When we engage in brief, intense exercise (for example sprinting or jumping in basketball, football or volleyball) our bodies use glycogen (glucose stores) to provide energy.2 Sports that require more endurance, such as long-distance running, use glycogen stores initially and then turn to body fat for energy.2 Eating or drinking carbohydrates immediately following the event, and then at 2-hour intervals afterwards help to replenish the glycogen stores in our muscles.2 On the other hand, our bodies store glycogen up to 48 hours before an event. The main goal of a pre-event meal is to provide the body with foods high in carbohydrates (especially complex carbohydrates), with moderate amounts of protein and fat.2

Protein – Protein is a very important part of an adolescent athlete’s diet. Protein functions to build, maintain and repair muscles, produce hemoglobin, and form antibodies, enzymes and hormones – all of which are things that young athletes need to be healthy. On average, the protein recommendation for adolescents is 0.9g of protein for every 1 kg body weight per day.2 It is important to note that eating significantly more than the recommended amount of protein per day does not improve the bodies’ functions nor work to make the body stronger.2 Rather, excess protein is stored as fat, not muscle.2 For that reason, protein supplements have not been shown to enhance muscle development, strength or endurance.

Fat – Fat is an important fuel for light to moderate intensity exercise and for muscle activity during longer periods of exercise. Severe fat restriction may limit an adolescent’s performance by not allowing the body to retain adequate stores of fat triglycerides for energy.2

Fluids – One of the most important functions of fluids is to cool the body while it is working hard. Working muscles generate heat, which raise the temperature of the entire body. The goal of drinking water before, during and after physical activity is to prevent dehydration. It is recommended that active athletes drink 10-14 ounces of water 1-2 hours before the event, 4-6 ounces of water every 15-20 minutes during activity, and about 10-14 ounces of water after the sport.2

Dietary supplements – Given that there is no scientific data that supports that dietary supplements can improve performance, their use can be dangerous.2 As Spear reports, “supplements can give young athletes a false sense of security and any performance improvement will be credited to the supplement, and not the hard work and practice.”

With this information, coaches, parents and athletes can have a better understanding of what a balanced and healthy diet looks like for active adolescent athletes. It is important to keep in mind that eating a diet to support athletic performance is not about perfection, but rather about understanding what works best for each individual athlete.

Written by Beth Cotter, MPH, RDN – Registered Dietitian at the Inner Door Center in Royal Oak, Michigan

  1. “NEDA TOOLKIT for coaches and trainers” <http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/sites/default/files/Toolkits/CoachandTrainerToolkit.pdf&gt;
  2. Stang J, Story M. eds. Guidelines for adolescent nutrition services. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Leadership, Education and Training in Maternal and Child Nutrition, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota; Chapter 16: Sports Nutrition, 2005.

Photo: Exposure Skate

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