I became interested in sports nutrition early in my private practice. I was raising young athletes of my own, and seeing them in my private practice.
Mostly, they were coming in for advice about how to gain weight. Or how to lean out. Or, even, some were showing up with eating disorders.
While it’s a common myth to believe all athletes are healthy, the truth is some struggle with their weight. They can be overweight or too thin.
In this article, I’m addressing the underweight athlete, from what causes low body weight to how to feed him for weight gain.
When Athletes are Underweight
Some parents and their athletes want to know how to gain weight in the healthiest of ways.
Although our nation tends to focus on the overweight aspect, the underweight young athlete may be just as troublesome. An underweight athlete has a tougher time performing at his peak potential.
Normally, children and teens move through the natural ups and downs of growth and there’s little cause for worry.
But the growing athlete has a delicate balance to strike—matching energy needs for growth while covering the nutritional demands of sport at the same time.
For some young athletes, this is a continuous struggle.
Unmatched energy requirements may stem from the rigors of regular training, high energy needs associated with growth spurts, poor eating, or a poor diet.
If young athletes are losing weight and too thin they miss out on calories and nutrients. As a result, their athletic performance, growth and overall health may suffer.
What is Normal Growth, and What’s Not?
Growth is calorie-hungry, as are certain sports, like running, swimming and rowing. Normal growth relies on eating enough food to cover the energy and nutrient demands of sport and growth.Normal growth for young athletes relies on eating enough food to cover the energy and nutrient demands of sport and growth. #foodisfuel #youngathletes #eatlikeachampion Click To Tweet
Normal growth is pretty steady. You can tell is your athlete is growing normally by checking his body mass index (BMI). It should be tracking steadily along an established and predictable curve.
Good Eating Habits for Young Athletes
For the school-age athlete, normal eating typically consists of three meals and 2-3 snacks per day.
The teen requires more calories for the adolescent growth spurt, especially males. If your teen is in a regular sport with several hours of training most day of the week, he may need up to 4 meals and 1-2 snacks per day.
The Perils of Low Energy Intake
Skipping meals or snacks can lead to inadequate energy intake. The same goes for dieting to lose weight or body fat.
Even more subtle: Failing to gain weight is a sign of under-eating and possibly poor nutrition.
Equally troublesome is when athletes push nutrients for athletic performance or body composition benefits, such as protein, to the exclusion of other sources of nutrition.
All of these dietary restrictions and practices are dangerous territory for your athlete’s health.
Feeding Underweight Athletes
Feeding the underweight young athlete requires attention to food types, amounts, and timing of eating.
The best way to gain weight is not to “fatten up” the athlete if he is thin, but to match his energy needs for growth and sport, allowing for a healthy rate of weight gain and body composition to take shape.Food is the fuel young athletes need to perform their best. Click To Tweet
How to Gain Weight for Athletes
The best way to gain weight if your an athlete is detailed in these 6 tips:
1. Focus on Healthy Meal Plans
A balanced, healthy meal plan is essential for helping underweight athletes gain weight. Make sure to include a variety of all the food groups so that nutrients are present consistently throughout the day.
Include the following:
protein foods (eggs, lean meats, fish, beans, etc)
whole grains (whole grain breads, cereals, oatmeal, etc)
dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
fruit (apple, banana, berries)
vegetables (green beans, carrots, corn)
healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, avocado, peanut butter)
Aim for offering at least 4-5 of these different food groups at the main meals of the day.
2. Improve Snack Foods
With the above food groups in mind, offer 2 to 3 of them for snack foods. For example, cereal, fruit and milk, or nut butter, crackers and raisins are examples of hearty, nutritious snacks. I’ve got more ideas in my healthy snacks list here.
Don’t let snacks ruin your young athlete’s exercise. Remember, create a power snack by adding a protein food, which will help satisfy your athlete’s appetite for longer periods of time than a carb-based snack by itself (ie, crackers).
3. Healthy Drinks with Purpose
Water is great for everyone, but the athlete who is underweight should try to drink beverages that offer both calories and nutrition.
Drinking milk or non-dairy substitutes, 100% juices, smoothies, and breakfast drinks can be an easy way to down some extra calories and nutrients.
4. Start a Bedtime Snack
Eating a nutritious, healthy snack prior to bedtime can help the underweight athlete get extra calories that won’t be burned off while sleeping.
Try peanut butter toast, instant pudding made with whole milk, a bowl of low sugar cereal, or a milkshake.
5. Use Fat to Build in Extra Calories
The addition of healthy fats to your athlete’s usual foods can build in more calories. It also eases the pressure and requirement to eat more, or eating huge portions of food.
Add margarine, mayonnaise or avocado to sandwiches, “double-dress” cooked pasta (toss in olive oil, then top with butter or olive-oil soft spread), or sprinkle cheese on entrees are some examples of adding extra calories to food.
6. Schedule Meals and Snacks
Working with a schedule for meals and snacks will help your athlete eat in intervals, helping meet energy needs and optimize appetite.
A structured approach with eating ensures nutrition is on board, while helping build a rhythmic appetite for eating.
School-age athletes can eat every 3-4 hours, while teen athletes can schedule meals and snacks every 3-5 hours.
Remember, food is the fuel your young athlete needs to perform at his or her best.
Goals for Underweight Athletes
When young athletes are underweight, they need to know how to gain weight. The goal is to help them match their nutritional needs for growth and sport.
Many underweight young athletes feel better, have more energy, and even gain weight when their nutritional requirements are met. Even better: they may improve their endurance, strength and stamina when they are at a healthy weight.
For more youth sports nutrition advice, check out my book, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete.
Or join my online program, Eat Like a Champion, which helps athletes and parents learn about the importance of sports nutrition and how to put it to use in your everyday life.
Want more expert tips and insight on child nutrition and feeding? Join my newsletter!
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: June 24, 2015
Updated on: April 30, 2019