Adolescents involved in dance, cheerleading, yoga, and various sports may eat more healthfully than those who sit on the sidelines, new research shows.

But top-notch nutrition isn’t always a slam dunk for young athletes, Jillian Croll, PhD, RD, and colleagues note in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Croll’s team studied 4,746 middle school and high school students in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The students were about 15 years old, on average. They completed surveys about their eating habits and participation in various sports and physical activities.

The roster included baseball, basketball, cheerleading, dance, football, gymnastics, hockey, ice skating, volleyball, and yoga. All but 838 of the students reported involvement in at least one of those activities.

The young athletes had “better eating habits and nutrient intake” than their peers but still need “nutritional interventions, particularly around calcium intake,” the researchers note.

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Edging Ahead

Adolescent athletes were more likely to eat breakfast and consume more protein, calcium, iron, and zinc (on average) than their peers.

However, female student athletes still didn’t get the recommended amount of calcium, and less than 30 percent of them met their recommended iron intake, the study shows.

Nutritional guidance could help bridge those shortfalls, the researchers note. They add that youths who want to become elite athletes may also benefit by learning more about nutrition.

Croll and colleagues took a close look at activities such as dance, cheerleading, ice skating, wrestling, and yoga. Those activities may focus on participants’ weight, raising concerns about dieting and disordered eating, the researchers note.

However, the study shows few differences among adolescent athletes.

Since the study was only done in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the researchers don’t know if the results apply to other groups.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed By Ann Edmundson, MD

SOURCES: Croll, J. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, May 2006; vol 106: pp 709-717. News release, American Dietetic Association.