Cutting weight through vigorous workouts and, sometimes, near starvation is the life of a high school wrestler.

Because of decisions made by young athletes, Dr. Nancy Betts, Oklahoma State University College of Human Environmental Sciences chair, and graduate student Lauren Ghosey collaborated with assistant professor of nutritional sciences Lenka Humenikova to investigate the extent of unhealthy dietary practices by high school wrestlers.

The study began in the fall of 2006 when Humenikova and her research team monitored changes in body composition, body weight and resting metabolic rate in 24 male wrestlers from two Oklahoma high schools. Using a DEXA machine, which assesses body composition, the researchers could measure body fat more accurately than the traditional skin-fold method, said Humenikova.

Starting the research during the 2006-7 season and following the athletes throughout the year, including the preseason of this year, Humenikova produced some interesting results. A portion of the research, an Eating Attitudes Test, showed that more than a third of the wrestlers reported that they were “either usually or often terrified about being overweight.”

“Most of them were at a healthy body weight with low percentage of body fat,” Humenikova said.

A new weight control plan was implemented by Oklahoma high schools in 2006 that said wrestlers cannot have less than 7 percent body fat and cannot lose more than 1.5 percent of their body weight per week.

This new program, however, does not take into effect the habits of the wrestlers before the seasons starts, said Humenikova.

“Based on the results of our study, it appears that the most significant weight cutting and dieting occurs in preseason rather than in-season,” Humenikova said, adding the new regulations probably contribute to this. “Wrestlers try to ‘make weight’ before the season starts when the official body composition measurements are taken. These measurements are then used to determine wrestlers’ minimum wrestling weight class for the season.”

The unhealthy diet chosen by the wrestlers, with an average age of 15.5 years, proved to be a significant lack of carbohydrates. While a third of the wrestlers said they often avoid high-carb food, three of them reported that they always avoid foods such as bread and potatoes.

“Carbohydrates are very important for athletes and energy from carbohydrates should make up about 65 percent of their total energy intake,” said Humenikova. “Wrestlers especially need to get enough carbohydrates from their diet because they are dependent on their glycogen as a major source of energy for their high-intensity training and competition.”

While the tradition of rapid weight loss methods and dehydration techniques — including spitting, working out in sweatsuits and simply avoiding liquids — have been in the sport of wrestling for ages, Humenikova is hoping to change that. She is hopeful that bringing these bad habits into the light will slow down and stop the abuse the wrestlers are putting their bodies through.

“I hope our research can help eliminate some misconceptions related to weight loss and dietary practices that exist among many high school as well as collegiate wrestlers,” she said.

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