In early 2016, my then-14-year-old daughter won gold in her weight class at the Karate Canada National Championships.
Two months later, she won gold at the USA Open Karate Championships, putting her in contention to compete in Ecuador that August.
She's a growing girl; her mother and I became concerned about how she could safely stay within her weight category for her sport.
Her mother is a family physician, and I regularly write about weight loss and expose fad diets; we're both aware of the risk of disordered eating behavior for girls. It was critical for us to help her realize her athletic ambitions while keeping her body and mind safe.
She did go on to compete in Ecuador, where I discussed the topic of "making weight" with Tommy Hood, head coach for USA Karate, the sport's national governing body.
"Planning is very important," Hood said. "The most successful way for people to make weight is to eat properly."
He spoke of the glorification of sauna suits and other negative pop imagery regarding cutting weight, saying, "My fear is that my athletes are going to think that's acceptable."
Another critical part of planning is ensuring kids are in the right weight category to begin with.
"Whatever they weigh in at is where they compete," Hood said of junior athletes, ages 11-14. "We don't have them cut weight at that age."
For the senior team, he wants them to stay within 5 percent of their weight class, but he'll move them up if they're going through a growth spurt.
Rob Skinner, senior sports dietitian with the U.S. Olympic Committee, echoes Hood's strategic planning approach.
"Most athletes take about eight weeks and cut weight slowly," Skinner said.
He's not a fan of extreme measures like excessive caloric restriction, which can negatively affect performance.
The strategy for Skinner's Olympians starts with cutting liquid calories from soda and juice, for example (water is fine), followed by small reductions in portion sizes. In the week leading up to competition, he may cut starchy carbohydrates to spark water loss (carbohydrates cause the body to retain water) and modestly limit fluid intake in the final few days. During this time, he also has athletes up their caloric burn by trading technique sessions for aerobic activity.
Kassidy Mahoney, an 18-year-old recent graduate of Huntley High School in Chicago's far northwestern suburbs, tries not to stress about making weight. Instead, she focuses on maintaining a good diet.
"I've been doing karate since I was 6," Mahoney told me at the Panamerican Karate Federation (PKF) Junior Championshipsin Ecuador, where she was taking part in her second Panamerican competition. "I'm always a healthy eater because I want to compete at my best."
Mahoney doesn't drink soda. She doesn't skip meals, either. The day she needs to officially weigh in, she postpones breakfast and is first in line at the scale. Then she eats.
"I'm very mindful about not developing disordered eating behavior," said the 5-foot-5-inch, 131-pound teen. "I don't ever want to worry more about my weight than I do about the competition."
Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, chief clinical officer at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, noted that the risk of eating disorders is higher among athletes in judged sports compared with those in refereed sports. Weight-category sports like karate, wrestling and boxing are refereed. By comparison, Bermudez explained, gymnastics and figure skating both judged sports "are more appearance-focused."
Bermudez said parents should keep an eye out for behavior changes in their young athletes.
"You don't want to see change that is not consistent with who you know your child to be," he said.
If a boy works hard at wrestling because he loves it and continues to be himself, that's one thing, "But if he becomes obsessive and derogatory towards himself, that's a personality change," Bermudez said.
Parents should monitor whether their kids drop weight just for competition, or if the restriction mentality has taken an enduring hold.
"For prevention, it's best not to warn about the dangers of eating disorders, but instead talk about viewing yourself positively and being accepting of differences," Bermudez said. "Performance is important, but so is sportsmanship and how we support each other."
"The goal," he said, "is to get athletes to have good eating behavior for their long-term health."
James Fell is a freelance writer and certified strength and conditioning specialist.
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