When it comes to diet trends, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. One minute, juicing is the latest and greatest, and the next time you pick up a magazine, there’s a whole new food group to avoid. It can be easy for adults and young athletes alike to assume that the diet trend of the moment is a good idea. But of course, we know that the best diet is a healthy, balanced, sustainable one—and that rarely are trends healthy in the long term.
Another thing to keep in mind: How you eat and how you talk about your body and your food will impact your athlete, whether you mean it to or not. It’s also important to note that a diet that is healthy for you may not be the right one for an athletic, growing child. “What you do as an adult does not apply to your kids, especially if they are active,” says TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. If you are on a specific diet for some reason, make sure your athlete understands that they don’t need to eat exactly like you.
An athlete hopping on a diet trend may also be trying to lose weight in an unhealthy way, so if you notice your athlete suddenly becoming interested in a juice cleanse, intermittent fasting, or a restrictive diet, that could be a warning sign of unhealthy behavior. In fact, research has shown that as many as 35 percent of dieters will progress into disordered eating.
Here are a few trendy diets that have popped up in recent years that your athlete should skip.
Low Carb or Keto Diet
A low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet that focuses primarily on fat for fuel, with some protein, can be disastrous for young athletes from a caloric, hormonal, and metabolic standpoint. “Young athletes definitely need that balanced plate, which includes carbs. And as their activity level increases, the carb requirements go up,” explains Ziesmer. “A low-carb or keto diet is meant for a sedentary person, and again, definitely not for a kid. In fact, kids actually function more off glucose and carbohydrates than adults do.”
But remember, balance is key. Ziesmer notes that fat is also a critical macronutrient, and that the amount needed also goes up the more active your athlete is. And protein should be a constant, with a few palm-sized servings spread throughout the day.
“I’ve worked with several athletes who ended up doing a Whole30 diet with their parents,” says Ziesmer. “But that limits a child’s caloric intake far too much.” A diet like the Whole30 that restricts many different food groups, from dairy to certain vegetables, makes it nearly impossible for your child to eat enough to fuel for training, and limits their ability to consume snacks that are healthy during activity, such as granola bars or sports drinks.
A vegan diet can be healthy, but it can also be a red flag. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen many girls adopt a vegan diet as a way to cut calories or control something in their life. And it basically turns into an eating disorder at that point,” Ziesmer says.
“If an athlete wants to become a vegetarian or vegan, I wouldn’t say that they shouldn’t do it. But I do think that they need to meet with a dietitian to make sure they’re getting all their nutrients and approaching this lifestyle choice in a healthy way. A lot of people don’t know what they’re doing with a vegan diet, so they just wind up eating a plate of vegetables, or a lot of junk—Oreos are vegan!—and they have very little protein. It ends up being very unbalanced.”
Intermittent fasting—limiting the time window when an athlete is eating every day (often only allowing a person between six and eight hours to eat)—can be difficult, especially when an athlete is at school and then at practice, or worse, at two practices each day. A time-limit on eating may mean your athlete skips critical meals, heads to game day with an empty stomach, doesn’t refuel after a practice, or goes to bed hungry. It also means they may not learn to read their own hunger cues properly, relying on a clock instead of their hunger to know when to eat.
Even worse, Ziesmer notes, is the combination of intermittent fasting with any other restrictive diet—which is more common than you may expect. For instance, combining fasting for 16 hours per day with the Whole30 diet can easily mean that an athlete is eating under 500 calories daily.
Many young athletes are interested and committed to doing everything they can to boost athletic performance, including the latest diet trends, but parents and coaches can help athletes prioritize their health by avoiding unbalanced and unhealthy eating habits. To learn more about proper sports nutrition, download the TrueSport Nutrition Guide and consider meeting with a registered dietitian.