How to Manage Extra Weight in the Young Swimmer


Weight management illustration.By Jill Castle, Registered Dietitian and Child Nutrition Expert 

There’s no doubt that the sport of swimming can be an ally to the child who may be carrying extra weight. While swimming on a regular schedule will likely produce the benefits of greater physical endurance, fitness and self-esteem, and cement the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle, it may not produce significant changes in weight status.

What many swimmers and parents don’t realize is that it takes more than just swimming alone to battle the bulge.

Nutrition Habits 
Young swimmers may carry extra weight for a variety of reasons. Make sure it is truly “extra” weight, and not normal variations associated with growing. The following nutrition habits may need improvement:

What is the swimmer eating? 
Are meals balanced with lean meats, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low fat dairy products? Do snacks contain a protein, whole grain, fruit or vegetable? Getting the right balance of nutritious foods (90%) and fun foods (10%) is essential. Aim for three “square” meals that contain most of the major food groups, and snacks that represent wholesome foods that satisfy the appetite. Be as scheduled with snacks as you are with meals. Watch out for too many sweets or packaged snacks as these can ramp up the extra calories quickly.

How is the swimmer eating? 
Look at the eating habits of the swimmer and the whole family. Is the swimmer eating out more than five times per week? This frequency starts to push the calorie load into overdrive. If eating out, where is it occurring and can the swimmer make (or is the swimmer making) healthy choices? Does the swimmer snack for more than 15-20 minutes? Dining at fast food establishments and lengthy snack sessions are associated with high calorie intake.

Why is the swimmer eating? 
Many swimmers eat due to hunger, which is a good reason. However, the swimmer can be overly hungry because the quality of meals and snacks are not nutritious or satisfying. This can lead to overeating.

Cultivate good eating habits, including mindfulness when eating. Identify physical hunger from eating out of boredom, pleasure or emotions. For the swimmer, the goal is mostly to eat for physical hunger or fuel.

Is Weight Loss OK? 
A gradual weight loss of no more than 1.5% of body weight per week (for the 150-pound swimmer, no more than 1-2# per week) in the presence of a nutritious and adequate diet is acceptable.

Don’t make the mistake of cutting out carbohydrates or protein—these are essential nutrients for active athletes. Instead, target fats. Keep the good fats such as olive and other plant oils, avocado and nuts in the diet, and cut out the unhealthy fats like fatty meats and dairy, fried foods and processed snacks.

A registered dietitian specializing in weight management or sports nutrition can help with healthy weight management in the growing swimmer.

Beware of the Risk Factors 
Managing weight in the young swimmer means being aware of the unintended consequences that may occur, such as extreme dieting and growth disturbances. While dieting is associated with a risk of disordered eating and eating disorders, ignoring important nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and iron, and overall calories to maintain growth may spur other problems.

Bottom Line: Swimming is one of the best sports around for healthy weight management, but remember, exercise alone may not correct excess weight. Fine tune nutrition habits to get the most out of swimming and other forms of exercise.

Jill Castle, MS, RD is a registered dietitian and child nutrition expert. She is the co-author of the upcoming book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (2013), and creator of Just The Right Byte, a child and family nutrition blog. She lives with her husband and four children (two swimmers!) in New Canaan, CT. Want to contact Jill? Email her at  

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