"My friend just told me that he has to lose 10 pounds by next week … isn't that unhealthy?" asked my 17-year-old son. Perplexed and troubled, he went on to say that unless his friend "starved" himself, he wouldn't "make his weight" for his wrestling team.
Unfortunately, this is not atypical. Anywhere from one-quarter to two-thirds of high school wrestlers use fasting, excessive exercise, unbalanced diets, and voluntary dehydration as techniques to help them achieve a fighting weight, according to some estimates. Ironically, these behaviors only sap athletes of the strength and energy needed to compete in this sport—and they're particularly dangerous for still-growing teens, who demand calories to fuel both mind and body. Furthermore, an improper diet can have a profoundly negative impact on learning and focusing at a time when students can barely afford to divert their attention from college applications and SAT's to rigorous after-school workouts and weekend tournaments.
In his 2001 report published in Contemporary Pediatrics, "Aiming for Healthy Weight for Wrestlers and Other Athletes," the late Vito Perriello, Jr., a pediatrician and pioneer in the field of sports medicine, wrote that participants of "weight-sensitive sports" are likelier to engage in unhealthy eating practices than are other athletes. Wrestlers in particular "feel that to succeed they must punish themselves in order to make themselves tougher," wrote Perriello, adding that they think they'll also "gain an advantage by competing at a lower weight." However, studies have determined that wrestling performance is optimal at one's ideal weight versus a lower weight, since the latter could cause weakness and reduced endurance.
While one tactic, voluntary dehydration, may make the numbers on the scale go down, it also cheats the body of the fluid it needs to protect the heart, kidneys, and brain, as well as to properly perform other vital bodily functions. Josh, a teen who competes for a high school team told me, "Although I know it's good to keep hydrated, to make weight I sometimes completely cut liquids out of my diet." But "before a match or after weigh-ins," Josh said, '"I usually stuff my face with sports drinks, water, and food to gain my weight back so I can feel good before I wrestle." This starvation-to-binge pattern is rampant among wrestlers.
Ben, a 12th-grade wrestler, seemed sensible when he said that when asked for diet advice from fellow teammates, he tells them, "Eat three meals a day to keep metabolism and energy up [because] you can't work out without the energy that food gives your body." Yet, in his next sentence, he admitted, "But if I'm still a little overweight one or two days before the weigh-in, I do fast and skip breakfast the morning of the weigh-in … but I eat after." And he's not alone. Several other students, including Max, an 11th-grade wrestler, told me, "Although I know I probably shouldn't, I do usually binge after a weigh-in ... I try not to go overboard if my match is very soon after my weigh-in, but tournaments sometimes have weigh-ins the day before, though, so under those conditions I do eat as much as possible."
And it's not just the kids who are obsessed with weight. I recently overheard a conversation between two dads of teen wrestlers, who were discussing their sons' weight status. One said, "What's your son weighing now?" The other smiled and replied, "My son is down to 120 and will probably be 116 by the weekend ... but he's looking good." The method by which that weight would be lost didn't seem to be of concern. Many parents light the fire under extreme eating behaviors as well.
Although most wrestlers look to their coaches or teammates for tips on how to cut weight effectively, that doesn't guarantee that the advice they receive encourages safe weight loss. If a coach suspects that disordered eating practices are endangering a player, he should be suggesting a referral to a pediatrician or recommending a consultation with a registered dietitian. A player who is not in shape physically or mentally is not an asset to the team.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt and Spiderman's Uncle Ben similarly stated, "Great power involves great responsibility." It is so critically important that coaches provide the guidance young wrestlers need to fuel their growing bodies and minds. Poor habits at vulnerable times in life can set the stage for a lifetime of poor choices. When asked if he thought his eating habits reverted back to "normal" when not wrestling in the off-season, without hesitation, Josh responded, "No, wrestling has definitely affected my life in a way where I regularly don't eat normally. I constantly think about my weight and how much I weigh, so I can't just eat anything I want."
Young wrestlers need to learn that the number on the scale is not necessarily a reflection of their strength or state of health. During teen years, many important considerations must be weighed.
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Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.