For years, my angel of a pediatrician warned me about the dangers of putting kids on a diet. We had many conversations on this topic because I was always amazed at the dietary restrictions related to calories and nutritional content (sugar, starch, fats…) that came along with some of my kids’ friends. Mind you that these kids were active and athletic. Their menus always made me wonder if I was wrong to be so liberal with meal choices for my kids – to this day, they love my pasta!
The advice from my pediatrician was always full of logic and very applicable and worthy of repeating for this blog. In essence, with regard to athletic young girls, my kids’ doc, in no uncertain terms, analogized the act of restricting diets to committing a crime. She would say, “you take calories away, you belong behind bars. By starving you are depriving and weakening.”
Now, I can clarify that the term dieting as used above involved the purposeful limiting of calories as distinguished from teaching and offering a balanced meal plan. My kids’ pediatrician never advocated against offering a variety of foods that included fruits and veggies. In fact, to this day, she is very supportive of helping the parents of her young patients to strike that balance as well as fight off the temptation to go crazy on portion sizes. Clearly she has always been careful to separate healthy eating habits from putting your kids on a diet.
So, how about the young athletic girls who are overweight and possibly even obese? What would my wise pediatrician say to this? With regard to obesity (overweight to an unhealthy extent), yes, parents should consult their pediatricians and/or nutritionists to carve out a diet that still provides the nutritional daily needs while carefully restricting calorie intake. But that diet is far from one that borders on starvation. These are active girls who still require energy. You severely curtail their energy, you risk relatively poor sports performance levels that can contribute to a decrease in confidence. Their self-esteem is truly at stake here, both from the standpoint of body image and ability to perform.
For some athletic girls, you must consider that their contributions to team play or reputation on the circuit count more towards the all-important self-esteem than having that culture-promoted, coveted svelte body. And what about the deflating situation when these girls are at a birthday party for example and when the cake is distributed, fictional Susie is the only one denied because of diet? No one said these issues would be easy to resolve.
I would be remiss if I did not include the opposite situation, also common, which presents the skinny or slender athlete coaxed into believing that she can or should not eat for fear of putting on unwanted weight. This too is a very serious situation that demands attention. The emotional and psychological barriers to eating enough to maintain a healthy diet must be delicately addressed by experts. It is all about changing attitudes and habits that will fulfill the first priority, good health, while preventing a quantum leap in weight that will destroy her sports performance and self esteem. Gradual change that will permit the easiest adjustment possible is best for the athlete.
The key here is balance. Generally speaking, balance is hard to define. On a case by case/athletic girl by athletic girl basis, balancing nutritional requirements for proper growth and development, energy needs, caloric intake, and self esteem is doable. It takes patience, understanding and the guidance of the appropriate experts.
Appreciate hearing your thoughts and experiences.
(Reprinted from my blog "Sports Girl Talk" at www.gameonsportscamp.wordpress.com, covering topics and issues revolving around young girls in sports)
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