Calorie Burn Is Not Enough

By Jill Castle//RD and Child Nutrition Expert

There’s a lure that goes along with swimming, an idea that because growing swimmers work out regularly and have high calorie needs, they can eat whatever they want. You’ve seen the trend: inhaling super-sized fast food meals, guzzling jugs of OJ, pacing with soda and candy during a swim meet, and scooping bowls (and bowls) of ice cream late at night.

Can swimmers really get away with eating whatever they want? After all, swimmers are getting more than the recommended amount of exercise each day and burning a significant amount of calories. Or should young swimmers (and their parents) pay more attention to food and nutrition?

All children and teens are faced with an abundance of high calorie, nutrient-poor foods at school, church, friends’ homes, the pool and perhaps their own home. Marketing messages glorify and encourage poor food choices while fewer opportunities to get regular physical activity exist. Experts coin this 21st century environment “obesogenic,” or an environment that promotes obesity. While swimmers have physical activity built into their lives, the opportunities to choose less healthy foods abound, and the sense that ‘I can eat anything’ is strong.

Research shows that the food choices children make today influence their food choices (and health) as adults. Food preferences are established at a young age and they continue to be molded by food exposure and availability. If children see and eat less healthy foods regularly, their preferences for those foods become ingrained. Also, children are naturally drawn to high fat, sugary and salty foods, complicating and enhancing the situation more. In a nutshell, eating with abandon now may mean establishing strong food preferences for less healthy foods, and a likelihood of eating them in adulthood.

Swimming is a hungry sport. Rapid growth of the pre-teen and teen swimmer, combined with the added energy expenditure associated with swimming drives excess hunger which can lead to poor food choices. Staying ahead of hunger is an important part of assuring swimmers make healthier food choices. There are several strategies (link to Energy Needs of the Growing Swimmer-- from August 2011) to make sure young swimmers get enough nutrition to be healthy, grow well and perform in the pool.

Last, swimmers who develop a sense, or intuition, about eating have an important tool for lifetime weight management. Helping children tune into their body signals of hunger and fullness can normalize eating habits in the future. The swimmer who is tuned in will have different eating patterns while training (appetite will increase and so will eating) and during breaks (lagging appetite and reduced food consumption). Of course, choosing mostly healthy foods when hungry is also important.

Raising a healthy swimmer who grows into a healthy adult (with a healthy body weight), means thinking about the long-term effects of today’s food choices and habits on tomorrow’s health and weight. Abandon the idea that the daily calorie burn is enough! Food choice, managing hunger and tuning into appetite are lifelong health and weight management tools to help swimmers become healthy adults.

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