Sunday, April 29, 2012

They Are Always Watching and Listening

I have written in the past about coaches telling kids that they need to get bigger and stronger but fail to follow up those suggestions with details on how to get bigger and stronger.

As I stated in that article I am not using this as an opportunity to criticize coaches because even they would acknowledge they are not qualified to dispense sound nutritional advice to their athletes.  That said if a coach or parent is going to make a comment that a child needs to get bigger or even to lose weight they must be prepared to follow that up with wise and intelligent advice.  And if they don’t have the answer they should be prepared to provide a resource that can.

I am always concerned that a child can take a comment like this the wrong way and life at that age is confusing enough without tossing ill-advised suggestions their way.  What may seem to be a constructive comment may actually have unintended consequences.  For example a young athlete is advised to “get bigger” without getting any advice to do so and heads off to the local supplement shop to get advice from a salesperson…not a good first step!

What of the young lady that is told she needs to slim down for her next gymnastics competition but again is not advised how to do so.  Though it’s frightening to consider this that child may severely restrict food intake because she thinks she’s “fat.”

Kids are always listening to us and look up to us whether we realize it or not.  Several years ago my nephew (6 years old at the time) asked me why I would not eat any pizza and soda and I said because it’s bad for you.  Needless to say he repeated this to his mother when he wouldn’t eat his pizza and the comment was traced back to me and she read me the riot act, which I deserved.  While I didn’t think anything of my comment at the time when his mother called I immediately knew the mistake I had made.  When it comes to youth nutrition no food should be labeled bad.   The better approach would have been for me to say:  “I would rather have an apple and some almonds because I like that better than pizza.”

With this approach I haven’t confused him and have demonstrated with my actions that when it comes to food selection you have choices (also keeps my sister-in-law in good spirits).  Making better food choices is a process that takes time but the key is to be consistent with your own food choices because remember, kids ultimately get their cues from us.

Along these lines what about a school wide obesity prevention program?  With nearly 1 out of 3 children in the United States overweight or obese this seems like a needed step.  However, A new report from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health examined the possible association between school-based childhood obesity prevention programs and an increase in eating disorders among young children and adolescents.

The Poll asked parents about obesity prevention programs in their children’s schools and about food-related behaviors and activity that may be worrisome.

Overall, 82 percent of parents of children age 6-14 report at least one school-based childhood obesity intervention program taking place in their child’s school. Among these programs are nutrition education, limits on sweets or “junk food” in the classroom, height and weight measurements, and incentives for physical activity.

Additionally, 7 percent of parents report that their children have been made to feel bad at school about what or how much they were eating.

 This same group of parents was also asked about their children’s eating behaviors.

Thirty percent of parents of 6-14 year-olds report at least one behavior in their children that could be associated with the development of an eating disorder. These behaviors include inappropriate dieting, excessive worry about fat in foods, being preoccupied with food content or labels, refusing family meals, and having too much physical activity.

“The issue of childhood obesity is a serious problem. In order to intervene in what seems like an epidemic of childhood obesity, everyone needs to be involved,” says David Rosen, M.D., M.P.H., Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, Internal Medicine, and Psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and Chief of Teenage and Young Adult Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics.

However, Rosen says, “When obesity interventions are put in place without understanding how they work and what the risks are, there can be unintended consequences. Well-intentioned efforts can go awry when children misinterpret the information they’re given.

“Many of these behaviors are often dismissed as a phase,” says Rosen, “But given what we know about the association of these behaviors with the development of eating disorders and knowing that eating disorders are increasing in prevalence, they should be taken very seriously.”

The fact that 30% of parents report at least one worrisome eating behavior in their children is concerning.

“It’s much better and safer for parents to respond to worrisome eating behaviors early – even if there turns out to be no problem – than to wait until there is obviously a big problem,’ Rosen says. “It is much easier to prevent an eating disorder than it is to treat an eating disorder.”

Rosen offers these suggestions for parents:

·      Be attentive to your children’s eating habits. If you see behaviors that are worrisome to you, talk to your children about them. If the behaviors escalate, involve your child’s doctor.
·      Find out what your children’s schools are doing to prevent childhood obesity.
·      Be involved and engaged in that process.
·      Ask your children if they’re being teased at school about their food choices or their weight. If they are, go to the school and find out what is happening.  *

While I think school wide programs like those suggested in the above report are noble in nature it seems to be a bit of an overreach to me.  I started teaching an athletic development class at a public school last fall and on the first day I asked the children why they signed up for the class?  Several children said they took the class to exercise so they won’t become obese…

I was a little dumbfounded that 3RD and 4TH graders had this word in their vocabulary.  I am not naïve and obesity is not something to take lightly in fact it has become even more costly to America’s health than smoking.  But it seems like too much attention is paid to the problem and not enough to the solutions.  Rather than scare tactics let’s promote the benefits and fun of free play and school wide programs that have the potential to have lifelong impacts such as growing a school garden with the help of local farmers.  Some schools are even partnering with local farms not only to provide fresh food for school lunches but also field trips to show kids where their food comes from.

It is my strong belief that as parents, teachers and coaches the most effective steps we can take to resolve the youth obesity crisis or more appropriately the childhood inactivity, play deprived and over-fed, undernourished crisis is to model the behavior consistently that we expect of them.  They are watching and they are listening, closely.

Additional Resources:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bedtime Stories...

This is not the kind of bedtime story you are accustomed to, then again maybe you are…
Bobby is an 11-year-old boy that plays goalie for his travel hockey team.  The team often plays games that start around 8PM and don’t finish until around 9:30PM.  By the time he gets his gear off and packed and catches a ride home it might not be until 11PM that he gets a chance to go to bed.  I said has a chance to go to bed because Bobby has a hard time falling a sleep.
Bobby’s mom calls her sister (the health nut) while grocery shopping the next day and asks what type of melatonin supplement would help her son sleep better?  The sister is taken aback and politely suggests that children should not be taking melatonin, she instead recommends an herbal tea specifically for children.
Where to begin… 
I happen to know this boy and he is a very high-energy type and extremely competitive.  Have you ever watched a pre-game locker room where the team captain gives a fiery speech and the team stampedes down the tunnel and on to the field?  Those players are pretty revved up aren’t they?  Follow that up with an intense game and a position that requires keen mental focus like a goalie, and is there any wonder why the boy has a hard time falling a sleep?
These are all rhetorical questions of course and here’s another one that establishes my point, where is the wind down time?  Children that play night games with professional sport like schedules are extremely vulnerable for potential issues like not being able to fall asleep at night.
And the last thing we want to do is give them a supplement that covers up the real issue.  I am nervous to think what happens when the tea loses its effectiveness, is the melatonin the next step for an 11-year-old?  Let’s take a closer look at the real problem.  Children are ill equipped to handle professional-style schedules and that is exactly what many are living with because of travel teams and year-round single sport participation.  Mentally and physically they are not ready to meet these demands and it’s only a matter of time before the lack of sleep leads to fatigue, poor performance and likely injury.
As adolescent children experiencing rapid changes in height and weight, rest becomes essential to optimize growth and development. Without adequate rest children’s bodies are trying to play catch-up and it’s a race that is best avoided to prevent developmental delays that likely can’t be made up for.
Also worth mentioning is the message we send when we give them a supplement or even tea to fall asleep.  That could be the start of a slippery slope where they may always look for “things” outside of food, training or rest to give them an edge.  That may be taking a leap but it has to be considered because of the current competitive culture that permeates youth sport.
I want to make clear that I am not anti-sport.  What I am not in favor of is sport specialization and kids playing pro style schedules. For the pros it’s their career and they have the benefit of charter flights, luxury hotels, trainers and nutritionists.  Not to mention they are physically and mentally (at least most of them) mature adults.  Children don’t enjoy these benefits so they shouldn’t be expected to meet the same demands.  Most professional sports teams have at minimum a 4-month off-season.  Most kids that play on travel teams are lucky to get one month off during the year.  When’s the last time you cut a family vacation short just to get back in time for a practice or game?  In ten years which opportunity would you have regretted missing out on?
Just a few more thoughts I had after hearing about Bobby:
Who makes these schedules?
Who is best served by the current culture of youth sport, adults or kids?
Why do kids play sports…fun, to get a scholarship, what’s the point?
Is it worth using a kid up or burning them out before they turn 16?
I apologize for all of the questions this week but I think it’s important that they are considered.  Hopefully we all have the right answers for the sake of our children.  Children can be very persuasive and they may sincerely love a sport so much they couldn’t stand to be without it for a few weeks but the best thing we can do is call a timeout and encourage them to try something else for a while.  Not only will it be tremendous for overall athletic skill development it will also provide a de-loading phase for their developing young bodies.  And when it comes time to pick their sport back up a few months later you won’t be able to contain their enthusiasm.  What are the chances of emotional burn out from seasonal sport participation? Short-term pain for long-term gain!
Are we so emotionally invested in the “athletic careers” of our children that we are losing sight of the big picture?  Of overall scholarship aid handed out to college students each year, sports awards are a sliver:  18 percent at public colleges and universities and just 7 percent at private ones, according to Sandy Baum of Skidmore College and Lucie Lapovsky of Mercy College, compiled for the College Board (Hyman, 2009) .
And even those that are awarded athletic scholarships should still expect to pay a tuition bill, likely a large one.  Division 1 football and basketball (men and women) provide full scholarships but most other collegiate sports do not.  From my own experience the baseball team at Eastern Michigan University (yes, believe it or not they have a division 1 program) has an allotment of 11.7 scholarships to dole out between 25-30 players.  So obviously not everyone is getting a full ride scholarship, some do but most have only parts of their tuition covered.  As an example an athlete may have his books paid for and that’s only if he makes the team.  So are all of the travel leagues, year round commitments and sleepless nights worth what may only add up to a years worth of books? It’s better than nothing but something tells me our expectations were a tad loftier than that.
Sport should be fun and a physically creative outlet for kids to express their athleticism.  But the benefit of sport goes beyond the field of play because of the contribution that participation can have on character and leadership development.  If that were the goal instead of using sport as some sort of financial investment would our kids be better off in the game of life?  I recall a great quote from famed sport psychologist Harvey Dorfman:  “you better use the game or else it will use you.”  He was talking about perspective.  With the proper perspective you can use sports to contribute to your personal development, lose perspective though and it will likely lead to many sleepless nights. 

Yeah, But How Do I Do That?

I recently was told the following story by a parent of a young man who will be a junior in high school this fall.  The parent asked the varsity hockey coach what it would take for their son to make the team.  The first words out of the coach’s mouth:  “He needs to get quicker and lose 10-15 pounds.”

I am not going to attack the coach here but the above statement is potentially more harmful than helpful.  The young man was told of the coach’s comment but not by the coach himself.  If the coach felt this way he could have communicated that with the boy directly.  Most athletes will not admit this to the coach because they don’t want to challenge their authority but they all want to know where they stand in the coach’s eyes.  Teens have enough trouble juggling social, academic and athletic demands without the added burden of being forced to read a coach’s mind.  Give them something to work toward and more than likely they will rise to the challenge.  As proof of that this young man had already taken it upon himself to train off ice and improve his eating habits.  He thought he was doing a good thing but how should he feel now after essentially being cut down by the coach?

At best the young man blows it off and keeps plugging away.  At worst the young man takes a hit to his self-esteem and decides to give up on his program.   Being critical is part of being a coach.  However, it is also important for coaches to attach useful information along with the criticism.  If as a coach you are going to make the statement:  “you need to get quicker and lose 10-15 pounds,” you should also offer strategies to do so.

These aren’t pro athletes they are dealing with.   They are developing young men/women who are in need of reflective/insightful leadership.

The coach implying that by losing weight this young man will get quicker is purely speculative.  Losing 10-15 pounds?  Where did the coach get that number? 

It’s very important to be thoughtful and tactful when dealing with performance and dietary issues.  Young people want to please parents and coaches and will do almost anything to do so.  Lead them to it!  Don’t expect them to come up with the answers themselves because that’s when problems occur.

Imagine you are a young athlete who is told they need to get stronger and bigger but aren’t given guidance of how to do this.  Where do you go?  You will likely ask your friends who also lack the knowledge and experience to provide useful solutions.  I know what I would think if I were in such a situation.  At the local gym there are all of these “huge ripped” guys!  They will tell me how to get bigger and stronger.  Maybe these guys are doing it the right way but I’m not naive enough to believe they all do.  I have heard that scenario play out way to often.  I should also add that young athletes should never train like big slow muscle bound statues.  So even if they are clean they are not the models for sport performance.

Young people are impressionable and they want to excel on and off the field of play.  Criticism is an important part of coaching but only when it is accompanied with sound and tested advice for improvement.

I am often asked the following question: 

“How can my child gain muscle and lose body fat?”

I am going to provide you with 10 safe and effective tips to incorporate into you and your child’s dietary habits.   These tips take into account optimal body composition, health and performance.  There are strategies to improve each of these goals individually but that would not be in the long-term interest of you or your child.

1.     Feed every 2-3 hours.  Rather than “snacks” or “meals” think of feeding opportunities.  Stimulates metabolism, balances blood sugar that will have positive affects on health, body comp and energy levels.
2.     Eat lean-complete protein at each feeding.  Lean-complete protein is food that is an animal or came from an animal.
3.     Eat vegetables with each feeding.  Rich in micronutrients and phytochemicals.  Because both proteins and grains present acid loads to the body, it is important to balance the se loads with alkaline rich vegetables (and fruits).
4.     Eat veggies and fruits at any feeding and “other” carbs mostly after exercise.  Another way of saying this is eat:  non-fruit and vegetable carbohydrates (including simple sugars and sports drinks, as well as starchy carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, potatoes, etc.) during and within the few hours after exercise.  As carbohydrate tolerance is best during and after exercise, the majority of non-fruit and veggie carbohydrate energy should come during these times.
5.     Eat healthy fats daily.  Fats are essential to health, performance and body comp.  However, special care should be made to ensure that this intake is balanced between saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat.  Fats should make up about 20-30% of daily calorie intake. (See chart below)
6.     Most calorie-containing drinks (aside from workout nutrition) should be eliminated.  Workout nutrition could include Gatorade or my favorite post training recovery drink, low-fat chocolate milk (but only after training!)
7.     Eat whole foods instead of supplements whenever possible.
8.     Plan to break the tips 10% of the time.  100% nutritional discipline is never required for optimal progress.  Just be clear what 10% of the time really means.  If you have 35 feedings a week-10% would be 3-4 feedings.
9.     Plan ahead and prepare meals in advance.  Sometimes good nutrition is not about the food as much as it is about making sure the food is available when it is time to eat.  As the old cliché’ says, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
10. Eat as wide a variety of good foods as possible.  Most of us eat in a very habitual manner, ingesting similar breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  A great strategy is to eat produce seasonally.  By eating a wide variety of foods you avoid vitamin and mineral deficiencies.  When it comes to fruit and vegetables eat a rainbow!  Similarly colored produce often contain like micronutrients.  Eating a variety of colors ensures diverse and complete nutrient intake.

Prominent Fat Sources
Saturated Fats (about 30% of intake)
Animal fats (dairy, eggs and meat)
Monounsaturated (about 30% of intake)
Olive oil, nuts, avocado
Polyunsaturated (about 30% of intake)
Vegetable fats, flax seeds/oil, fish oil
Trans Fats (strive for less than 10%)
Hydrogenated vegetable oils

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sport Provides Platform for Leadership...

Last week I wrote about the need for women to step forward and lead the next generation by example.  I think this leadership is so crucial because young girls have a false sense of health that is perpetuated by the popular media and celebrities; being ultra thin is cool and glamorous.  Moms, older sisters and senior teammates I believe can play a huge role in the redefinition of what a healthy body image is and should be for young girls.

So I wanted to take some time this week to highlight a woman who is taking a leading role in a culture dominated by men.

Last August I meet Sue Falsone at a youth fitness seminar in Louisville, Kentucky.  Sue is a board certified clinical specialist in sports physical therapy (SCS); a certified athletic trainer (ATC); a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and at that time was a consultant with the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.  *

This past December Sue became the first female to hold the position of head athletic trainer in any of the four major sports (baseball, football, basketball, hockey) when the Dodgers appointed her to the post.

She's become a role model to schoolgirls who email or post on Facebook that they want to be just like her when they grow up.

Sue is considered one of the best physical therapists in the business regardless of gender.  She has earned this distinction because of her insane work ethic and dedication to learning and applying her craft.  I would also like to add that she is extremely brave because the world of professional baseball can be very territorial and cruel to the uninitiated.  However, Sue has won over the players and staff with her knowledge and professionalism.

While Sue serves as a tremendous role model for young women her training philosophy is also rock solid:

"Our approach is to bridge the gap from rehab to performance," she said. "Ten years ago, if your shoulder hurt, we treated the shoulder pain. Now we know the pain is in the shoulder, but the cause could be somewhere very different. We want to know why the pain is happening, and there should be a biomechanical reason. Somebody has knee pain; it might be because of an ankle or hip. There definitely is a paradigm shift to looking at the person as a whole and get the body as a whole to work optimally."

Over the last teen years of coaching young people one thing that stands out is the number of injuries that are occurring that I believe are directly related to lifestyle and training habits.  Specifically, kids sit for long periods of time (school, computer time, texting, etc.) in a slumped and rounded position.   Throw on top of that the relatively modern practice of sport specialization and pro-athlete like training programs.  Kids are breaking down prematurely because of these interrelated factors.  Due to muscle/bony adaptations from excessive sitting their still growing and developing bodies simply cannot tolerate the demands of sport, injury and pain can be a likely result.  This is not just my opinion but one Sue talked about when I meet her last August.

Her top 4 considerations for developing young athletes:
1.     Posture
2.     Prevention of Thoracic Spine Mobility Issues
3.     Moving Through the Hips
4.     Foot Health

I have written extensively on each of these topics in the past but I will provide a quick review.

Ideal posture allows the body to work efficiently and provides the foundation for balanced muscle activation.  Posture is a key defense against joint pain and muscle imbalances.

The thoracic spine is essentially the area of the spine located just above the shoulder blades and ends just above the lowest rib.  Rounded back postures tend to lock this area down and forces excessive movement in other areas such as the lower back and/or neck.  Also poor T-spine mobility puts the shoulder of throwing athletes at greater risk of injury.  It can also restrict breathing because of the pressure it creates on the diaphragm.  So if you are a runner and you find yourself winded easily it could be due to poor T-spine mobility.

Most adolescent athletes move through their knees too much.  This is likely an accommodation due to weak backside muscles and tight hip flexors.  Sitting for long periods of time directly feeds both of these issues (weak gluteus and short/stiff hips).  Training programs should focus on proper squatting technique, which should be driving the movement with their hips rather than the knees.  Working on flexibility at the thigh and hip is also important.

Kids feet are usually locked up in shoes all day and this weakens the small but still very important muscles of the feet.  These muscles are key in providing feedback for balance and split second adjustments that need to be made instinctively.  Walking in shoes all day makes the feet “lazy” and their function becomes dulled or delayed.  Flat feet and poor toe separation are also side effects that can lead to pain and muscle imbalances.  Walking around the house barefoot is a good place to start as is investing in a pair of minimalist shoes for daily non-sport use.  Crocs, flip-flops and Ugs are terrible for still developing feet.

These types of things don’t sound all that “exciting” as it relates to athletic development but the most important aspect of any training program is to keep the athlete on the field of play and out of the trainer’s room.  More time on the field of play allows for more time dedicated to refining skill and technique that can only be attained through experience.

With the increased rate of sport participation generally and the one-sport athlete specifically, it will become more important that ever to dedicate a large portion of off-field training to maintaining basic fundamental movement patterns.  Children don’t “play” as much as they used to and that’s where many of these fundamental patterns are learned and refined.  Getting back to the basics is a key component for developing the athlete of this generation and up and coming professionals like Sue Falsone understand this and are ready to show the way.


While I am on the topic of pro baseball I thought I’d share a story about a man that refuses to listen to the critics and even father time.

Jamie Moyer made his Major League Baseball debut in June 1986 and after missing all of last season with an injury he attempted a comeback with the Colorado Rockies.  Moyer made the team and started a game last week at the age of 49!  Moyer is not overly impressive from a physical standpoint at 6 feet tall and 180 pounds with a fastball that struggles to break 80 MPH (league avg.  90-92).  But Moyer has survived because he mastered the skill and art of pitching.  The amazing part of his story is that since he was a kid he was discouraged every step of the way because he didn’t throw hard enough.  And yet he persisted and made it to the big leagues because he believed in himself and he put the work in to master his craft.  The critics can be loud and annoying but they don’t matter!  The voice you hear everyday inside of you is the one that determines the direction your life takes.  That’s not even the best part of Moyer’s story.  He was so determined to make it back to pro-baseball because it provides a bigger platform to spread the word for his charity work dedicated to helping children in distress.  Now that is a true champion in the game of life, the only game that counts!


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Why Baseball Used To Be Boring...

A new ruling by the Michigan High School Athletic Association could have a profound impact on how the game of baseball is played at the amateur level.  In my humble opinion it is a change that is in the best long-term interest of not only young athletes but also the game itself.

So what is this new rule?

The new rule requires all non-wood baseball bats to meet the Batted Coefficient of Restitution standard.  In plain terms it means the rule is disarming what had essentially become rocket launchers.  The rule has forced bat manufactures to deaden the bat to reduce exit speeds of batted balls.  Players will also have the option of using wood bats.  First let me say the most important impact this will have is on player safety.  A baseball hit with the modern high-tech bats would get back to the pitcher a mere split second after releasing the pitch.  Pitchers had essentially no time to react; it was like a game of chicken with only their reflexes to keep them from serious injury.

Another important aspect of this rule change deals with the way the game is going to be played from a strategic and developmental standpoint.  I have written many times over the years that the one quality talent scouts and recruiters are on the look out for is athleticism and speed (and yes I have asked them the question).  They know they can add strength and size once they get kids on campus or in their organization.  But the quality they can’t teach them because it’s optimally attained during early developmental stages is speed and overall athleticism.  Coaches know if a kid possesses these qualities they have a lot to work with.  If you need more reinforcement check out what Detroit Tiger manager Jim Leyland has to say about the impact speed has on the game:

 "People don't realize how much speed affects the game," Leyland said. "When you get a guy over at first that can run it affects us, because we're worried about holding him. The pitcher knows he can run. The catcher knows he might steal. It affects the game in a lot of ways. There's no substitute for it. You can't teach it. There's something to be said for it."

I agree wholeheartedly with Leyland’s observation but allow me to clarify one phrase;  “You can’t teach it.”  Speed and quickness can be coached and developed in young athletes but it can’t be taught to the already developed athletes Leyland is working with.

So exactly how will the rule change affect the play on the field?  Based on personal experience hitting with a wooden bat or wood-like bat is extremely difficult, think swinging at a ball with a newspaper (slight exaggeration but not much of one).  The ball simply does not jump off the bat like it would when using a composite metal bat.  Game-changing homeruns will occur less often and it won’t be in a program or players best interest to rely on the long ball for success.  Players will have to develop their ability to get on base by hitting line drives or using the lost art of bunting the ball (think lob shot in tennis for non-baseball enthusiasts).  Once on base the skill of base stealing can and should be a weapon of choice because pardon the pun it’s an easy way to steal runs. 

With less emphasis on hitting the ball out of the park, running the bases and finding creative ways to get on base will allow athletes to show off their speed and athleticism, two qualities you likely don’t relate to the game of baseball.  Unfortunately many young athletes think baseball is slow and boring?  I think this a great opportunity to reintroduce a wonderful sport to the next generation of young athlete.  The current generation grew up watching meat heads soaked with steroids and composite weapons that launched balls with little effort into the stratosphere.  That style of baseball leads to a lot of trotting and standing around watching balls fly.

Baseball coaches didn’t need this rule to change the way they develop young players but why waste a good opportunity?  What kid wouldn’t have a blast playing a game that allows them to sprint, jump, dive, slide, catch, throw, roll and even steal (in a legal way of course)?  Baseball has always been a great game in my mind but its image is in need of an overhaul.  It has been slow and boring but due to better drug testing and stiffer penalties at the professional level and deadened bats at the amateur level competitive coaches and teams will be forced to find another way to develop their team.  Speed and athleticism are an ideal place to start and the teams that posses it, just like Jim Leyland said, will drive the opposition “batty!”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Beware the Female Athlete Triad

Female sports participation at the high school level has significantly increased since the 1970s.  Nationwide, boys still outnumber girls in high school sports, at a ratio of roughly 3:2, according to the 2011 High School Athletics Participation Survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations, but female participation has increased every year since 1988-89.  *

Physical activity in females has numerous positive benefits, including improved body image and overall health. Unfortunately, a select population of exercising females may experience symptoms related to the "female athlete triad (FMAT)," which refers to the interrelationships among energy availability, menstrual function, and bone mineral density.

According to the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health:

Clinically, these conditions can manifest as disordered eating behaviors, menstrual irregularity, and stress fractures. Athletes with conditions related to the triad are distributed along a spectrum between optimal health and disease and may not experience all conditions simultaneously. Previous research related to the triad has primarily focused on collegiate and elite athletes. However, mounting evidence demonstrates that the triad is present in the high school population. High school athletes should be assessed for triad components at pre-participation physicals. In addition, parents, coaches, and health care professionals should be educated and informed about the female athlete triad syndrome. In the presence of triad symptoms, further evaluation and treatment by a multidisciplinary team is strongly recommended for the athlete. **

The evidence may show an increasing rate of FMAT among high school girls but why now?  My best guess is that girls are participating in competitive sports more than they ever have.  Additionally the demands of the “travel team” schedule and nearly year round sports consistently beat their bodies up with little if any time for restoration.  The popular media may play a role by creating a false image of health and beauty for young girls, though this issue has likely been around for decades.  Girls are bombarded with images on magazine covers, TV and the movies and then look at themselves in the mirror and think they are “fat.”  The natural result is girls think they eat too much and cut back on their food intake.

This sets off a chain reaction that is at the core of the FMAT.  Developing and active young women have high energy demands and throw into that mix the menstrual cycle and it’s recipe for trouble if they decide to restrict food intake.

Last week I touched on the fact that menstruating women have a higher risk of iron deficiency.  Valuable nutrients like iron are lost in the menstruation process and they need to be replaced by eating food.  Similarly the stress fractures related to this syndrome are at he least partially due to the lack of nutrients available for the regeneration and lying down of new bone.  Females that cut back on food because they think it’s making them “fat” are putting their immediate and long-term health at great risk.

The participation of women in sport has evolved to the point it’s no longer considered odd, it wasn’t that long ago that it was frowned upon.  However the idea those women don’t need to eat very much food has not evolved.  Active and developing young women should be encouraged to eat enough food to meet their energy requirements.  According to the Center for National Health the estimated energy (caloric) needs for highly active girls age 8-15 range from 2100 (8 years) up to 3000 (15+years) calories a day.

Strategies to help girls meet their nutritional needs must extend beyond calorie counting.  We don’t eat calories we eat food so asking a young girl to count calories would ultimately be a fruitless exercise, not to mention irresponsible in my view.   While we need to make sure children are getting enough food, the type of food they eat is significant.  It’s quite possible and a reality given the high levels of youth obesity in this country, that many children are overfed and undernourished.  Kids eat a lot of packaged and processed food that lack the essential vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and healthy fats that are essential for optimal growth and development.  So even if a young girl is meeting her daily energy requirements she could still be malnourished if she’s not eating the right type of foods.  So the FMAT is not just a problem for girls that are thin it can affect girls of all heights and weights.

 Here is what I recommend for highly active young ladies:

1.     Eat breakfast every morning
2.     At each meal have fruit, vegetable, protein source (animal or vegetarian)
3.     Eat a snack after school or before practice
4.     Drink plenty of water throughout the day especially after practice/game
5.     After an intense practice or game especially in the heat an electrolyte replacement drink like Gatorade is a good choice.
6.     Eat your biggest meal after exercise.  This meal should include protein, fruit and vegetable, and/or a serving of starch like brown rice or sweet potatoes.
7.     No need for protein shakes, go for a glass of grass fed milk.  Chocolate milk is a good choice after intense exercise.
8.     Include healthy fats each day from sources like almonds, walnuts, avocado, olive oil, and whole pastured eggs.
9.     No supplements required if you are eating a variety of whole foods.  Fish oil may be the lone exception because eating a lot of fish is not recommended because of mercury concerns.  For healthy individuals pure fish oil is highly beneficial but check with your doctor or pediatrician for proper dosages.

Another strategy that is the best option in my mind is one relating to leadership.  I know plenty of mothers that set terrific examples for their children because they are extremely active and walk the talk by eating nutritious foods.  Role modeling has a powerful impact on our youth. 

I have also been heartened in recent years by many of the high school girls I have coached.  They seem to have a better understanding than their male counterparts of the importance of eating nutritious foods.   These young ladies should be encouraged to mentor the younger girls and show them what being fit and healthy really looks like.

Starving your self to look like a cover model is not cool, more importantly it’s not healthy.  Boys click on ESPN and have plenty of athletic role models to choose from, for better or worse.  Positive athletic females aren’t quite as visible or as easy to find in today’s culture.  Maybe that is the next step in the women’s athletic revolution, a new definition and image of a healthy young lady…  Ladies are you ready to lead?

I would also like to point out that many teenagers are at the point where image is very meaningful and they may decide to make statements through their lifestyle choices.  One of these choices may be to become a vegan or vegetarian.  I am not one to discourage any type of lifestyle choice particularly if it is on the grounds of ethical or health concerns.  That said, it is extremely important that if a young child makes the decision to try the vegan or vegetarian lifestyle that they get professional guidance to ensure they don’t develop any nutrient deficiencies.  Nutrients sourced from animals are plentiful and highly beneficial for the body.  If these nutrients are missing, a plan must be in place to make up for any potential deficiencies.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Balanced nutrition in teen years crucial...

Researchers at UCLA have found that a lack of iron intake in the teen years can impact the brain later in life.
Iron and the proteins that transport it are critically important for brain function. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, causing poor cognitive achievement in school-aged children.
"We found that healthy brain wiring in adults depended on having good iron levels in your teenage years," said Paul Thompson, a member of UCLA's Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. "This connection was a lot stronger than we expected, especially as we were looking at people who were young and healthy — none of them would be considered iron-deficient.”
"Adolescence is a period of high vulnerability to brain insults, and the brain is still very actively developing," Thompson said.
"You wouldn't think the iron in our diet would affect the brain so much in our teen years. But it turns out that it matters very much. Because myelin speeds your brain's communications, and iron is vital for making myelin, poor iron levels in childhood erode your brain reserves which you need later in life to protect against aging and Alzheimer's.”
"This is remarkable, as we were not studying iron deficient people, just around 600 normal healthy people. It underscores the need for a balanced diet in the teenage years, when your brain's command center is still actively maturing. " *
It’s fascinating to me how closely related the systems of the body truly are.   Just as global skill acquisition from a physical standpoint is best attained through early and diverse exposures this research points out how crucial early in life nutritional intake is in the long-term development of a child.
Menstruating females are particularly vulnerable to iron deficiencies. 
It should be noted however that later in life, iron overload is associated with damage to the brain, and abnormally high iron concentrations have been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington diseases.  So yes, you can have too much of a good thing.  It is important not to go overboard and start mega dosing with iron supplements.  In my opinion children should get all of their nutrients through whole food sources.  This helps to ensure that the nutrient intake comes in a natural package in just the right form and ratio for your body to absorb.  By eating a variety of food sources (avoid eating the same fruits and vegetables everyday all year long) and eating seasonal foods when possible you will ensure you are taking in all of the essential vitamins and minerals the body requires.
So what are good whole food sources of iron?
Sources: Almonds, apricots, baked beans, dates, lima beans, kidney beans, raisins, brown rice, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, tuna, flounder, chicken, grass fed beef, black strap molasses, liver (does any one eat this anymore?).
According to Dr. John Berardi:
Consume iron rich foods with vitamin C rich foods to enhance absorption.
Deficiency: Anemia with small and pale red blood cells. In children it is associated with behavioral abnormalities.
Toxicity: Common cause of poisoning in children. May increase the risk of chronic disease. Excessive intake of supplemental iron is an emergency room situation. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases are associated with iron excess.  **
If you suspect your child has an iron deficiency you should consult your pediatrician or doctor before attempting to give any type of supplement to your child.  The best strategy to ensure your child is getting adequate iron is to eat a variety of the food sources listed above.  Also don’t feel compelled to have your child eat these foods excessively.  Eating a variety of whole foods throughout the week will go a long way toward preventing any type of nutrient deficiency.