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The Informed Parent

Dangerous Weight Loss

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Feb. 22, 2000

Mrs. J. came into the office with young Jason in hand. She had a determined continence of a person on a mission. Jason, a nine-year-old boy, was relaxed and smiling. The mother's face indicated a serious problem. Her offspring's demeanor did not fit the picture.

"Hi, Jason," I greeted. "What brings you in?"

"Mom has a question about how I can lose weight, so I can play football."

"Why do you have to lose weight to play ball?" I queried.

At that point the mother dove into the conversation. "You see, doctor, we are a sports family. Jason has to play Pop Warner football. His sister is a cheerleader, my husband is a coach and I am social director of the league. He must lose four pounds in the next two days to qualify for the team we want him to play for. What can we do to make the weight cut off? We don't want him to play in the next weight bracket because he would be one of the lightest, and my husband doesn't coach on that team."

I quickly realized the boy's wishes were clouded by the parental desires. "Jason, what do you want to do?" I asked.

"Well, Doctor, I thought I might play flag football for the park. There's no cut-off weight bracket, and a lot of my friends play there, and it seems like fun."

Mrs. J. quickly interjected, "We've already discussed this, and Pop Warner is the best thing for the whole family. Jason replied, "Whatever!"

Regardless of Jason's feelings my point of view on this subject would remain steadfast. "Mrs. J., when weight is pared off rapidly, it is body water that is lost, not fat. After having dropped several pounds in a short time, athletes find themselves competing in a relatively dehydrated state, not only down in weight but also down in muscle power, endurance and concentration. The water-deprived body is operating far off optimum since many critical metabolic processes are greatly impaired. At a time when the athlete needs his best performance, not only to win but to prevent injuries, he is operating at a terrible disadvantage. The decrease in performance occurs so insidiously with dehydration, the participant often may not realize his handicap.

The role of acute dehydration is seen in all sports that demand sustained high energy output unless the competitor consciously keeps himself well hydrated. Many soccer, basketball and football teams seem to lose their edge and suffer injuries in the last part of a game because they have not kept their body fluids at an adequate level by proper water intake.

The practice of rapid weight loss to make a sports classification is usually encountered in high school and college wrestling, but your question indicates that young boys in Pop Warner football are also involved with this process. The practice of crash weight reduction makes the athlete start any contest at a disadvantage, which can only increase as body water is further depleted during the game.

Losing weight to make a class must be loss of fat, not fluids or muscle. It must be in a programmed fashion based on a healthy, well-balanced diet. As we all know this usually does not equal four pounds (4.5 percent weight loss) in five days in a nine-year-old boy weighing 88 pounds. It takes time to do it safely.

At the same time, I realize the boy's problem. He is at the bottom of a weight category and therefore would have to compete against boys of much greater bulk. In tackle football that is a real concern. The solution to this dilemma may not be pleasant but the well-being of the child is most important. You have three choices: 1) have him play in a potentially dehydrated and vulnerable state 2) have him play in the next category with bigger boys 3) have him wait to play until he safely fits into a category without the need for hazardous weight reduction practices. From an objective standpoint it would seem that option No. 3 is the most reasonable.

While losing weight safely your son could participate in a sport free of specific weight categories. We must never allow ourselves to place our children in a dangerous situation, no matter how much the offspring pleads. There are times parents must adopt an unpopular stand to protect their children. If the reason is carefully explained, presented as a united front by both parents, most children will accept the decision. As parents we cannot be swayed by relatives, friends or coaches from the proper course of action. Most importantly, we can't be swayed by our own egos or desires.

When I finished my answer Mrs. J. looked frustrated and embarrassed. "Dr. Samson, thanks for your advice, but I'll have to discuss this with Jason's father."

"And what do you think, Jason?" I questioned. "Park flag football seems really good to me," he answered.

"We'll see about that, Jason," his mother stated firmly. "Thank you, doctor, for your advice."

As they left the office I once again realized how inappropriate some children's athletic world can be when adult desires and egos become the main driving force for childhood team sports participation. It is better for an adult to have their own competitive or social pursuits than to live vicariously through their children.

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