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For the Young Athlete: Energy Balance and Weight Control

For young growing athletes, their intake of food provides nutrients and energy for metabolism, activity, and growth. Every athlete has individual needs for calories based on age, gender, weight, and intensity, frequency, and duration of their activity. The energy from food and drink comes from protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Fat has more than twice the calories per gram compared with protein and carbohydrates.

Maintaining weight, gaining weight, or losing weight is a matter of energy balance. When caloric intake from food and drink meets energy expenditure needs, weight maintenance (or growth) will be achieved. Naturally, weight gain occurs during periods of growth and, for our young athletes, this is expected. But, additional weight gain happens when more calories are consumed than needed. Conversely, weight loss occurs when fewer calories are consumed than needed.

Often an athlete will desire weight gain or loss for their sport. Please know that any change in weight for a young athlete should be gradual and realistic and, ideally, complement their individual growth chart and body composition measurements. Weekly weight loss or weight gain should not be greater than 0.5 to 1.0 pound per week.

In my own family of young athletes, we have experienced both sides of the energy equation, seasons for weight loss and seasons for weight gain. Here are some general nutritional guidelines for weight control:

  • Weight loss- The first step is to cut out unnecessary calories that are not providing additional nutrients (called empty calories). This includes soda, candy, sweets, and chips. Also, find places in the diet to cut down on fat (remember fat contains twice the calories of protein and carbohydrate). This could mean using light salad dressing, less butter or oil on food, and replacing sour cream with plain, non-fat, Greek yogurt. The athlete’s diet should instead focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods as described in Healthy Eating: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy.

  • It is also recommended to expend additional calories with aerobic activity like walking, biking, running, or swimming. But in a time-crunched season, make it easy like a new regular walk after dinner or an extra walk for the dog. Expending a few extra calories daily will assist weight loss efforts.

  • Weight gain- Adding a snack between meals is a good way to incorporate extra calories. The Snacking article offers easy, portable snack ideas. The addition of nuts and nut butters are a healthful way to add extra calories to the diet. It’s almost effortless to consume a handful of nuts between meals or even sprinkle them on cereal or yogurt at breakfast or the salad at dinner. Instead of just snacking on plain crackers or sliced fruit, spread them with a nut butter. And for any athlete with a nut allergy, soy butter or sunflower seed butter are good substitutes.

Whether you are in a season of weight maintenance, weight gain or weight loss, don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal…raising a healthy child!

This is the fifth article in a 5-part series called ‘Sports Nutrition for the Young Athlete’.

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