How to talk to your athletes about what they eat

By Dr. Wendy Lebolt

Breaking news! America has a weight problem, and it’s not limited to adults. Many of our young people are overweight, and a rising number are obese. (Some put this percentage as high as 30 percent).

On the flip side, an increasing number of young people have eating disorders. According to CNN Health, a study conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality showed that hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006.

So, we have a weight problem in U.S. youths, polarized toward the two extremes. But we have another problem: we’re afraid to talk to kids about their weight, for fear it will put them at risk of an eating disorder. Parents, coaches and other adults are all in the same boat.

The dilemma gets even more complex when gender issues play into the conversation, especially male coaches talking to female athletes. One experienced male coach told me recently that he had a hard time talking about nutrition issues with his female players. “I don’t want them to think I’m telling them they’re fat. I don’t want to bring too much concern. I’m afraid of sending them into an eating disorder.”

Images of coaches subjecting gymnasts to weigh-ins and wrestling athletes that have to “make weight” leap to mind. A coach’s words can have huge impact and they can be damaging. Key for the coach: you don’t want to turn your overweight, underweight or normal-weight athlete into a disordered-eating athlete.

We are barraged by nutrition information every day, frankly because there’s lots of confusion and lots of desperation, and also lots of money to be made. Nutrition is big business in this country, primarily because people will invest in “anything that will help.” Most of what is offered has little scientific support and very few show long-term success.

The internet is ripe with theories. Lots of research dollars are being funneled into the nutrition and health arena. But helping our athletes make good food choices, in proper portions, with the larger goal of taking good care of themselves, should be our agenda. Our best approach is: Healthy eating and proper exercise will fuel a body to perform its best.

That is what every coach should remember when addressing the issue of body composition or weight management with his or her athletes. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. In fact, NOT talking about it may be the best way to insure disordered-eating stays under wraps. But we have to talk about it in the right way, with concern for their long-term health and well-being (which teens may roll their eyes at) that sounds like concern for their performance on the team (which teens will totally tune into).

So, how do we bring up the subject?

Talk to the whole team; don’t just single out a few “at risk” kids. As coach, learn the basics of good nutrition so you can be a resource for your players. Beware of nutritional misinformation that’s out there, often promoted by the food industry. Focus on health and performance, not weight. Make it clear that a strong engine needs the best possible fuel.

Make your talk fun and interesting. Have a prize for the kid who can answer trivia questions like: How many calories are in a Starbucks triple vanilla latte? How much saturated fat in a Chipotle burrito?

Keep a handout on the basics in the science of healthy eating and good nutrition, plus gameday eating. (See the Fit2Finish website for the handout I use.) You can also point them to online links with good, basic sports nutrition information. Here’s one for younger children, and another for young adults.

Fortunately, soccer athletes are not as at-risk for eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia as athletes who participate in the “judged for appearance” sports like gymnastics and figure skating, or sports where very low body weight conveys a significant advantage, like distance running. Competitors to the end, I have heard frightening stories of teams competing for how little an athlete can eat, the winner boasting one carrot stick for lunch and plain lettuce for dinner. Still, as coaches, we need to be on the lookout for signs of eating disorders.

A young friend of mine named Lauren, upon her discharge from residential treatment for an eating disorder, wrote an article with information she wanted shared so others wouldn’t have to go through what she had endured. This is what she wants you to know:

“Ten million females and one million males have an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Millions more have a binge eating disorder. While more prevalent in adolescent and college-aged girls, it can affect anyone of any age. A person with an eating disorder is typically a perfectionist, driven, ‘wanting to please’ person. Here are things you might see in a person with an eating disorder:

  • Weight loss, especially sudden or extreme
  • Restricting food intake while claiming to eat “healthy”
  • Avoiding situations involving food
  • Going to the bathroom right after meals
  • Sadness or depression, often with social withdrawal
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide weight loss

Family, peers, society and trauma can contribute to a person’s eating disorder. It is a very serious illness and can lead to heart failure, osteoporosis, infertility, and even death if left untreated. The good news is that recovery is possible with a team of healthcare professionals to help. The road to recovery may be a long process, but it is possible.”

Lauren was a healthy, athletic teenager who competed for her high school and club team, and worked at a part-time three to four days per week while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Do any of your athletes fit that profile?

“Before I knew it, the eating disorder had control of me,” she writes.

Now she is on the road to recovery. She asks, “Please, if you know of someone who has an eating disorder, encourage them to get help. Don’t sit back and wait.  It is an illness and nothing to be ashamed of, and you could save his/her life.”

Coaches, perhaps you will frame your “food talk” in the terms I do, as “Caring for Your Body.” If you care deeply for your athletes you may even start with the words this parent did: “I really love you. You only have one body and one brain in this life. I want you to take care of them.”

That will set you up for the big finish:

  • Assure every single athlete of their value to the team, as a person, not just a teammate.
  • Invite them to talk to you privately if they need any advice or have any concerns.
  • Give them my contact information. I’m happy to talk with them or their families and to share resources that might be helpful.

Fellow coaches, this is a conversation we can’t avoid having. Diet is a word with four letters, but we can’t continue to treat it as a four-letter word.

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Editor’s note: This is the latest column from Dr. Wendy Lebolt, a longtime coach and physiologist who is the founder of Fit2Finish, a Northern Virginia-based training, fitness and rehabilitation company which works with teams and individual players to maximize health and performance. The Soccer Wire is excited to present Wendy’s learned perspectives on the mental, physical and psychological aspects of the beautiful game. Learn more about her background here.