Sporty teens refuel the best

By JEANNINE STEIN 2006, Los Angeles Times Published:

Teens dont always have the best track record when it comes to eating. Many stock their diets with junk food or try to pare away pounds with stringent regimens and skipped meals.

But one group of adolescents racks up far better nutritional points: those involved in sports.

According to a study published this month in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, junior high- and high-school-aged teens who engaged in recreational sports on a regular basis had better eating habits and consumed more nutrients than their non-fitness-minded peers.

That held true even among those involved in weight-related sports such as gymnastics and wrestling, where body type and size is a factor and athletes sometimes skip meals or starve themselves to keep their weight down. Some of them eventually develop eating disorders.

The study, by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota, reached its conclusions after surveying about 4,700 teenagers in the Minneapolis area between 1998 and 1999. Teens filled out a questionnaire that included queries about frequency of meals and how often they ate certain foods. The researchers found that male teens in both power-related sports such as football, baseball and hockey and weight-related sports such as wrestling ate breakfast and lunch more frequently than their non-sporty peers.

Female athletes had better eating habits too especially those involved in weight-related sports such as ice skating, gymnastics and dance. They ate breakfast, dinner and snacks more often than those either on power teams or not involved in sports.

I was very surprised to see these athletes did a great job, says Jillian Croll, the studys lead author, now coordinator of research and education for the Emily Program, an outpatient eating disorders treatment program in St. Paul, Minn. Teens active in sports expend so many calories that there is concern they may not be compensating adequately at mealtime, she says.

Croll was especially surprised by the good habits of kids involved in weight-related sports because of the history of bad eating habits in those sports, especially among elite athletes. Clearly, says Croll, theres something about being in sports that has an association with improved nutrient intake a strong association thats very positive.

She also chalks up the results to the fact that these kids arent at a really high level of participation, and not feeling as much competition and pressure. Theyre able to focus more on good performances, and that includes good nutrition, and theyre not worrying about being the thinnest person on the team in sports where light weight matters, she says.

Despite the good habits, all groups of kids showed some deficiency in meeting their nutritional requirements of calcium, zinc and iron. For example, only about 30 percent of all teen girls surveyed met the recommended calcium intake of 1,300 milligrams daily.

She says the calcium shortfall could easily be made up by adding a glass of milk; a serving of iron-rich food such as red meat or fortified cereal could upgrade iron levels; and dairy products and nuts could up the amount of dietary zinc.

Croll believes that coaches and trainers should be doing a better job of promoting healthful eating to their students so that they can improve performance and not develop disordered eating habits.

Sports kids do great, and theyre not falling into traps as much as we thought, she says. But there is room for improvement.

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