The Dangers of “Making Weight” for High School Athletes
By Andrea Schwartz, MEd, RD, LDN, CLC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Registered Dietitian
Virtua Medical Nutrition
All high school athletes need to be physically fit and healthy to play their best. But for some sports, such as wrestling or rowing, athletes also need to “make weight” to compete in a certain weight division. In sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, ballet or running, athletes may strive to achieve an “ideal” body size or shape to improve performance.
Although weight and body shape can play an important role in many sports, some athletes take dieting to the extreme and engage in dangerous eating and exercise practices in the days and weeks before a competition. Here’s what high school athletes—as well as their parents and coaches—need to know about safe weight management.
What weight-loss practices are most dangerous?
Some teenage athletes resort to unhealthy practices to help them make weight before a competition, recital or meet. In addition to having a negative effect on athletic performance, these dangerous practices can have serious health consequences—even resulting in death. Dangerous weight-loss practices include:
Dehydration—or a reduction of water in the body—can cause electrolyte imbalances, muscle cramps, headache, nausea, vomiting and heat exhaustion. Severe dehydration can lead to heat stroke, which can be deadly.
When athletes fast or consume too few calories, even for a day or two, it deprives their bodies of the fuel and energy they need. Athletes who fast may experience lightheadedness, feel tired and take longer to recover after a workout. Long-term fasting can compromise the immune system and cause damage to the internal organs. Severely restricting or cutting out entire food groups—such as carbohydrates —can make athletes feel tired and affect their performance.
Overtraining can put athletes at a higher risk of excessive fatigue and overuse injuries, such as stress fractures and muscle strains. Female athletes who follow a restrictive diet and an intense training schedule are at high risk of developing a condition called female athlete triad, which can cause irregular periods, disordered eating and weakened bones. Male athletes may also experience weakened bones, disordered eating and hormone imbalances.
In addition to physical problems caused by extreme dieting, athletes also can suffer from mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Academic performance also can suffer.
How athletes can stay healthy while “making weight”
One of the most important things that athletes can do to stay healthy is to ensure that their weight goal is realistic. Every athlete has a unique body type that is determined by genetics, so it may not be possible for everyone to achieve an “ideal” body weight, size or shape. Athletes who participate in sports with weight divisions should consider their body frame and muscle mass when determining what weight class is realistic.
Planning is another critical tool for managing weight safely. Many athletes follow a rigid diet and training schedule during the sport season, but resort to unhealthy habits during the off-season. Letting health habits fall by the wayside can lead to unhealthy pre-season crash dieting and exercising.
Instead, athletes should plan their year around their sports season and their athletic goals. Although it’s OK to relax diet and exercise routines somewhat during the off-season, athletes should develop a year-round conditioning plan that adjusts their diet based on their activity levels so they can avoid excess weight gain.
What foods should high school athletes eat?
To stay full and satisfied, active athletes should eat colorful, balanced meals that include lean sources of protein, whole grains, fresh produce and healthy fats.
This includes eating a variety of foods such as apples, green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, quinoa, unsalted or lightly salted nuts, salmon, olive oil and berries. These aid in reducing post-workout inflammation and soreness, help build and repair muscle, and replace lost nutrients.
For high school athletes and parents looking for healthy eating guidance, the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate is a great place to start. The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate recommends that fruits and vegetables make up one-half of the plate, while whole grains and protein each make up one-quarter of the plate.
What foods should high school athletes avoid?
High school athletes should avoid highly processed foods and fast food, as well as “white” carbs like white bread. It’s a good idea to limit foods that are boxed, bagged or wrapped. Sodas, sports drinks and coffee beverages can be high in sugar and calories and provide little nutritional benefit.
Get help from a registered dietitian
A registered dietitian can help high school athletes develop a year-round, healthy-eating plan that reflects their activity level and weight management goals. By teaching high school athletes how to read nutrition labels and follow portion control guidelines, registered dietitians can encourage them to make healthier choices.
In addition to helping high school athletes develop healthy dietary habits, registered dietitians also can provide tips for parents on meal planning, grocery shopping and quick-and-healthy or on-the-go meal ideas.
Call 1-888-847-8823 to schedule an appointment with a Virtua registered dietitian.
Updated August 21, 2018