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Weight Modification in Young Athletes: A Question of Nutritional Quality and Quantity By:Brett Klika

A frequent challenge with young (and old) athletes is gaining or losing weight in order to improve performance. Because it is an athlete’s most familiar medium, they often assume that exercise is the primary factor behind weight gain or loss. After all, every fitness magazine on every newsstand is touting the newest, best exercise program to lose weight and/or gain beautiful, bronzen muscle. And as we all know, magazines DON’T lie! While exercise is effective for improving movement, power output, body shape, flexibility, fitness, and a variety of other important aspects of health and wellness, it is very ineffective for modifying bodyweight without proper nutrition. When I sit down with a young athlete who presents this bodyweight challenge, the first question I ask is “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” The answers usually range from a “sheepish grin” to “a bowl of cereal”. As a matter of fact, I have NEVER in 10 years heard an answer to that question from a high school athlete that would qualify as legitimate for pursuit of their weight modification goal.

The intake of food is the primary way in which our body receives nutrients. Nutrients in food help facilitate nearly every metabolic function in our body. Major functions of particular interest to athletes are the creation and utilization of energy as well as tissue repair and growth. Calories from food provide fuel for these processes. Calories come from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each one of these “macronutrients” has a slightly different affect on creating energy and repairing tissue in the body. Different foods are made up of different ratios of these macronutrients. Within these macronutrients are vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other important “micronutrients”. Different foods have different densities of these micronutrients. The amounts of macro and micro nutrients in a given food are found on the nutrition label. You want to look for a high percentage of vitamins and minerals, a low (less than 2) number of ingredients, a low number for sugars, and balanced level of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. The more nutrient-dense food you take in, the more potential for creating energy and repairing tissue.

While every youngster will have different demands for creating energy and repairing tissue, they all have a demand for nutrient dense food. It’s the amount of calories from macronutrients that may differ. With youngsters, the body’s physiological environment is designed for growth. Powerful hormones present during puberty drive the growth process for the transformation from a kid body to an adult body. During this process, there is a high demand for creating energy and repairing tissue. Couple this with rigorous athletic activity, you can see that the body’s need for nutrients from food is accelerated. If the body does not have an adequate amount of nutrients, the ability to create energy (important for weight loss) and repair tissue (important for weight gain) is compromised. Weight loss as well as weight gain is halted. As you can see, weight loss and weight gain is a matter of the right amount of high nutrient density food.

High quality, nutrient dense food gets into the body and acts like a navy SEAL team. It is effective and deliberate at what it does. It goes right to work and does it’s job providing the body with what it needs to perform at it’s best. The body recognizes these nutrients and in turn, uses them very efficiently. Nothing is wasted. When low nutrient density foods enter the body, they act more like a VW Bus full of hippies. No real place to go, no real things to do, they just take up space. The body doesn’t really recognize the processed chemicals that make up these foods, so it does not use them effectively. These foods render very little that can be used for energy, or tissue repair. Just like hippies, these foods have no real value, so they just “hang out” in the system. They are broken down and stored as fat or just excreted from the body. These foods don’t help the skinny kid gain weight; they don’t help the overweight kid lose weight.

In regards to food amounts, I still recommend referring to food quality when it comes to gaining or losing weight. I’ve never looked at a youngster’s initial nutrition journal and said “Aha! Here’s the problem! You eat too many organic yams!” The fact is, it’s hard to go wrong with “real” food (food that was born from the ground or was once alive) when it comes to gaining or losing weight. Eating real food aids both the processes of creating energy and repairing tissue for youngsters. Since your body knows what it is and is designed to process it, it’s harder to over-eat. For youngsters trying to gain weight, real food that is more calorically dense (usually meaning slightly higher in fat) packs a nutritional punch that will outperform many supplements. For either case of gaining or losing weight, eating real food in multiple meals (around 5) increases the efficiency of how the body uses the nutrients. For those trying to lose weight, this prevents the body from getting hungry and overeating. For those trying to gain weight, it provides a constant flow of nutrients to continually build tissue. Obviously, to lose weight each portion should be smaller than someone’s who is trying to gain weight. More food means more calories, meaning more possible energy. Unused energy is stored as fat. If a child’s activity level or genetic metabolism does not elicit a high rate of energy utilization, a large intake of calories ends up being wasted and stored as fat. They do, however, still need frequent doses of nutrient dense foods! Exact amounts needed to achieve individual goals differ. Consult a nutritionist for the specifics, but if you are eating real foods frequently, that’s all most youngsters need to see results!

There is always the question of “supplements” with youngsters. Supplements like protein shakes are engineered to pack a nutritious punch, taste good, and be convenient. Real food is still better, but if these shakes are more palatable, convenient, and they contribute to the process of getting 5 or more small meals during the day, then go for it. A calorically similar portion of whole milk and/or a natural peanut butter and jelly sandwich would actually be more effective for a youngster, but you have to go for what is most realistic and repeatable. Youngsters do not need creatine, Nitric Oxide, or fat burners. Pubescent youth have the most potent muscle builder available literally coursing through their veins. Testosterone! Aside from genetics, food intake is one of the most influential factors on a growing youngster’s levels of testosterone.

In summary, nothing, not one legal option is more effective for body modification than eating real food frequently. It is the ONLY way. I will say it one final time, HEY YOUNGSTERS, IF YOU WANT TO CHANGE YOUR BODY, EAT REAL FOOD FREQUENTLY. Pair this with proper, well designed, supervised, intense training and you are on the road to unparallel success!

Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting or

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