Losing or gaining weight to be able to perform your best in sports can be a common practice among young athletes. As a registered dietitian, I have experienced parents frustrated that their 12-year-old son is not "bulking up" to make the soccer or football team. They test out protein powders, supplements, and eat excess amounts of calories to put weight on, but does this work and is it safe? Whether you are a wrestler trying to "make weight" or a long-distance runner trying to "slim down" to race your best, these practices can lead to unhealthy body images and weight-control issues. What are the risks involved and are there safe ways young athletes can reach a healthy weight?

This question was recently addressed in an American Academy of Pediatrics report on promoting healthy weight practices in young athletes. Weight-class sports, such as wrestling and martial arts, may lead an athlete to believe that weighing less is better; whereas, sports such as football and powerlifting, emphasize strength and muscle building which can lead to unhealthy weight gain practices.

Realistic approaches to healthy weight

Parents, coaches, and athletes need to have realistic expectations on what is a healthy weight for competition. Just because you are eating more protein, this does not always translate to gaining more muscle. They need to consider the athlete's stage of puberty, genetics, type of training, and what they eat can influence their weight. Early education is key to identify the signs of unhealthy weight-control practices and to promote a positive body image as well as teach about a proper fueling with food for their sport.

Unhealthy weight control practices

As a parent, it is important to be informed and proactive regarding your child's health. Parents and coaches should look out for the following warning signs of unhealthy practices to control weight:

  • Rapid weight loss leading to dehydration, increasing the risk of heat illness

  • Not eating enough calories to support growth and activity called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S)

  • Using performance enhancing supplements such as "weight gainers" or steroids to promote rapid weight gain

  • Laxative or diet pill use

  • Vomiting/purging after eating

  • Fluid restriction, diuretic use, or exercising to promote excessive sweat to lose water weight

  • Distorted body image and perfectionism may increase risks of eating disorders

Healthy Weight Control Practices

The following are healthy weight control practices that should be promoted and supported by your child's healthcare provider, to help young athletes to reach their optimal growth, maintain energy levels, and enhance their sports performance.

  • Gradual weight gain up to one's genetic potential: Boys can safely gain up to 0.5-1.0 pounds/week of muscle and girls can safely gain up to 0.25-0.75 pounds/week of muscle

  • Gradual weight loss of no more than 1 pound/week in a growing athlete with extra body fat or up to 2 pounds/week in a more mature athlete (post-puberty)

  • Diet is well-balanced containing carbohydrates , protein, and fat

  • Athlete is well hydrated

Preventing unhealthy weight practices

The following guidelines have been established to prevent unhealthy weight practices: