Last modified: Wednesday, August 30, 2006
High school athletes choosing to be overweight?
Eating disorders have been a troubling but familiar problem for athletes in aesthetic sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating. Now the growing number of massive professional football players is having a "trickle-down effect" resulting in an increasing number of high school football players who may believe that large body size enhances performance.
Joanne Klossner, clinical assistant professor in Indiana University's Department of Kinesiology, said little research has been done in this area, but anecdotal trends suggest that bigger is being seen as better for some athletes, especially those playing positions such as the offensive and defensive lines in football. Often there is a perceived ideal weight for a position or sport, she said, even though it might not be an ideal weight for wellness.
"Obesity predisposes them to conditions such as high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and cardiovascular disease, to name a few. It can be difficult as an adult to take weight off after the athlete transitions from competitive athletics to a sedentary lifestyle," said Klossner, clinical education coordinator for the kinesiology department's athletic training program.
Obesity also increases student athletes' risks for joint injuries and heat stress and can cause complications for asthmatics.
On the other end of the spectrum, body image and eating disorders remain a perennial problem for coaches, athletes and parents because of today's racy culture, a lingering "thin to win" mentality in some coaches, and a natural competitive streak in athletes. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia can potentially lead to death in severe cases. Eating disorders increase student athletes' risks for heart arrhythmia, irreversible bone loss and dehydration as well as numerous other health problems.
Klossner said coaches are becoming more sensitive to body image issues and better trained to help athletes avoid such problems. She said high school athletes are more vulnerable to eating disorders, because they have a smaller support network than college and professional athletes, making it easier for the problem to go unnoticed.
Klossner's top tips:
- Student athletes should have a physical each year, even if one is not required. Klossner said pediatricians can offer guidance on healthy weight practices.
- Parents and students should refer to growth charts (see http://www.cdc.gov/growthcharts/), which are designed to reflect the normal growth of adolescents and teens, not adults.
Klossner also recommends:
- Parents and students should refer to the revised food pyramid (see http://www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines/) and dietary guidelines when considering the students' dietary needs. Student athletes typically will need more calories, not fewer, Klossner said, with the correct balance between complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats. She also noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics states there should be no weight-loss plan for athletes in ninth grade or younger strictly for athletic purposes. If weight gain or loss is a problem, a physician or athletic trainer can help with proper referrals.
- Professional help should be sought as quickly as possible once an eating disorder is detected. Coaches should refer such athletes to a specialist without negative consequences such as team suspension.
- Parents and coaches should de-emphasize weight in the athletic setting, emphasize nutrition and appropriate weight control, treat each athlete individually, and never suggest or encourage purging behavior. Weigh-ins should only be conducted by appropriate medical personnel.
Additional links: The Academy for Eating Disorders, http://www.aedweb.org, is an international transdisciplinary professional organization that promotes excellence in research, treatment and prevention of eating disorders. The National Athletic Trainers' Association has a checklist of questions parents and students can ask about sport safety at http://www.nata.org/publicinformation/files/safetychecklist.pdf.