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Study Warns Girl Athletes : Poor Diets Can Affect Performance

May 23, 1985

Most athletes eat foods that they believe will make them stronger or faster, but many athletic teen-age girls are more concerned about being thin than eating for maximum performance.

The desire for a thin physique, along with increased physical exercise, may cause a decrease in the quality and quantity of a girl's diet. A study published in the May issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. warns that poor diets can affect the growth and development, as well as athletic performance, of adolescent girls.

Authors May Perron RD, and Jeanette Endres Ph.D., RD, of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, studied a group of teen-age female volleyball players. At least 70% were not consuming enough calories, calcium and iron.

Nutrient Inadequacies

Previous studies showed that many teen-age girls have inadequate amounts of these nutrients in their diets. The research by Perron and Endres draws attention to the additional needs imposed by athletic competition.

The deficiencies of the young athletes could not be attributed to lack of knowledge or a poor attitude about nutrition. The authors suggest that concerns about weight were a key factor. Eighty-eight percent of the subjects said that they worried about gaining weight; 73% wanted to lose weight.

It seems surprising, then, that one-third of their dietary choices were desserts, sweetened beverages, sugar, condiments and salty snacks. Rather than give up food they enjoyed, the girls cut calories by avoiding foods they liked less. They were more concerned about controlling weight than getting nutrients that would contribute to their sports successes.

Only about 10% of total food servings come from the milk and meat groups. This explains the low intake of calcium and iron, which fell below 67% of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for these two nutrients. Both are essential for growth and influence physical performance.

Looking to Innovation

The American Dietetic Assn., the nation's largest group of nutrition professionals, urges parents to look for innovative ways to encourage eating patterns that will safeguard the health of female adolescents. Offer nutritious foods rather than criticizing and nagging, advise registered dietitians.

"There is little that parents can do about what their daughter eats away from home, but what's on the table and in the refrigerator will influence a girl's total dietary intake," Endres said.

Teens want quick and easy-to-eat foods. Some good snacks are low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, cold chicken, pizza, fruit, fortified cereal, raw vegetable sticks and whole-grain muffins. Parents can help teens limit calories and control weight at meal times by serving moderate portions of healthful foods, simply prepared, and by providing milk and fruit juices rather than carbonated beverages.

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