It’s difficult to approach the issue of weight loss or weight gain from any one single angle. Many factors are often at play when it comes to a child’s weight, eating habits or their nutrition knowledge. A good approach for many coaches is to simply help their athletes focus on healthy habits rather than a particular number on the scale. Below are a few things to consider before approaching athletes about weight loss or weight gain and then some tips about what to say kids and how to say it.
What the Statistics Say
Study after study reports that there is a childhood obesity epidemic in this country. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, making more than one third of children and adolescents overweight or obese in 2012. Conversely, results from the 2011–2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), using measured heights and weights, indicate that an estimated 3.5% of children and adolescents aged 2–19 years are underweight. As kids grow they may move in and out of both the overweight and underweight category. The goal is not to stay in one or the other for a long period of time.
Socio Economic Status and Education Factors
A summary of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which studied kids between 2005-2008, says that low-income children and adolescents are more likely to be obese than their higher income counterparts, but the relationship is not consistent across race and ethnicity groups. Before jumping to the conclusion that obesity is a low-income problem, know that most obese children and adolescents are not low income (at or below 130% of the poverty level). Also, children and adolescents living in households where the head of household has a college degree are less likely to be obese compared with those living in households where the household head has less education, but again, the relationship is not consistent across race and ethnicity groups. Between 1988–1994 and 2007–2008 the prevalence of childhood obesity increased at all income and education levels.
Studies show there are physiological and psychological differences between men and women regarding weight loss and associated behaviors. While those differences might not be totally developed in young athletes, they are most likely starting to show up in teenagers. Make sure you and your athletes set reasonable expectations for their age and gender.
Some sports have a greater focus on athletes reaching a certain body weight than others. If losing or gaining weight is a key part of the sport you coach, even at the youth level, consult an expert to ensure kids will reach their goals safely. Young wrestlers or Olympic lifters, for instance, will usually know that achieving a particular body weight could eventually be a part of their sport – help them make adjustments by consulting a professional before embarking on any kind of plan to reach a particular weight by a certain deadline. Sports that don’t require a pre-competition weigh-in can, and should, be treated with more leniencies.
Weight loss or weight gain can be a warning sign that a child is overwhelmed by something. The best way to know if a child is experiencing something that’s having a negative affect on their weight is to establish ongoing communication from the get-go. Don’t ignore problems. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from a school counselor or a doctor before approaching the child.
Also related to emotional health, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder some time in their life. Eating disorders arise from a variety of physical, emotional and social issues, all of which must be addressed for effective prevention and treatment. NEDA offers a Coach & Athletic Trainer Toolkit that includes strategies for assisting athletes.
What to Say and How to Say It
Rosa Cataldo, Director of Healthy Weight and Wellness Center at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in Stony Brook, New York says that when approaching the subject of weight loss with kids, sometimes it’s better not to have a “big talk.” Instead, let the topic of healthy eating come up in bits and pieces, like when you’re giving tips on how to get ready for an upcoming game or what food to pack for an all day tournament. If kids want to have a longer, more in-depth conversation, that’s fine, but stay positive and watch your words. Avoid words like “fat” or “thin” and instead try talking about how to maintain health or feel good for the duration of a long training session.
Avoid talking about people’s looks, including your own. Dispute unrealistic images – remind kids that a healthy body, no matter how it might look, is what can have an impact on sport performance. Encourage kids to ask questions to get a feel for their knowledge on nutrition and if their questions go deeper than your own nutrition knowledge, get back to them with answers after you’ve consulted an expert. If they seem especially interested in the topic, consider having an expert come to a practice for a short lesson on how to fuel their bodies correctly.
Participation in youth sports is a great vehicle for kids to learn about good nutrition, Make sure their focus is on maintaining healthy habits and doesn’t shift to losing or gaining weight to achieve a particular number on the scale. Overall, try to consider the factors that may contribute to each child’s weight and have a game plan about what to say and how to say it before initiating conversation.