For young teenagers, diet culture is hard to avoid. Whether they hear about a new fad from friends or read about a new diet trend in a health magazine, there's often pressure to have some kind of stance on food. And while some diet trends like intermittent fasting might be safe and healthy for most adults, that is not the case for children and teen athletes who are developing at a rapid pace. Any diet that puts restrictions on how an athlete eats should be looked at critically, and fasting in particular can be a gateway to destructive eating behaviors.
Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, explains what parents need to know about fasting and young athletes.
Kids don't need restrictions on diet
Eating when hungry is critical for development—not just physical development, but also for athletes being able to understand their bodies and register their own hunger cues rather than relying on a clock to decide when they're "allowed" to eat. And fasting now can have consequences later: A study in 2013 found that any kind of dieting as a child or young adult increased the likelihood of developing an eating disorder in later years. Meal skipping has also been shown to lead to nutritional deficiencies in kids. Even if they're getting enough calories, it's often hard to make up all of the micronutrients that are critical to a young athlete's development. "Kids should be able to eat whenever they're hungry," Ziesmer says. "There's no good reason that a child should be fasting."
Remember that children model parent's behavior
"Often, kids get these ideas about following diets and food trends from their parents," says Ziesmer. "Remember that what works for you isn't necessarily going to be good or healthy for your growing athlete. And remember that your athlete is watching how you eat and hearing how you talk about food and your weight," says Ziesmer. "I see a lot of parents who are doing fasts or a restrictive diet like Whole30 and their children end up doing it as well."
Even if you're not suggesting that your child do a diet alongside of you, they may want to try it to lose weight, or you may be accidentally restricting their intake because you're no longer making breakfast for the whole family, or you're cooking only Whole30-approved options for dinner. If you're on a diet of any kind, ensure that your athletes still have access to the food that they need.