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Healthy Eating A Challenge for Youth Sports Athletes, Parents Say

Recent study suggests how parents, coaches and youth sport organizations can promote healthful eating

The food and beverages available to and consumed by youth athletes when they participate in organized sports is often unhealthy, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Minnesota.1 Cheeseburger and French Fries

Common food in youth sport settings were sweets (eg, candy, ice cream, doughnuts), pizza, hot dogs, ‘‘taco-in-a-bag,'' salty snacks (eg, chips, cheese puffs, nachos), as well as soda pop and sports drinks.  Parents acknowledged that the foods were not what they would consider healthy, but, as one said, "It's more of the things they want to eat."

Fast food diet

Parents also reported frequent visits to a fast-food restaurant (eg, McDonald's, Dairy Queen) and at event concession stands when their children were playing sports, particularly among players in traveling programs that have multigame tournaments. 

The reason, parents consistently reported, were that they were "crunched for time" and "feeling rushed", and that these time pressures interfered with their ability, they said, to plan ahead and pack healthful snacks, reduced the frequency of evening family meals, and increased their perceived need for convenience food.  "Unhealthy food choices have become the easy - and in many cases in youth sport settings - the only choice for families," said Toben F. Nelson, ScD, principal investigator of the study, in an e-mail to MomsTEAM.

Most parents reported that unhealthful food is readily available in sports setting, and their children are "just around it, and they want it," even they acknowledged that such a food environment promoted unhealthful nutrition habits.  Some also blamed nutrition messages from the mass media for influencing the types of food and beverages kids consume in conjunction with sports (and, as it turns out, with good reason: a 2013 study[2] shows that the biggest sports stars, presumably the most healthy people on the planet, promote the most unhealthy food and beverages which target adolescents).  They admitted that their own dietary habits and established eating norms also influenced the types of foods and beverages their children consume, suggesting that, because children look up to their coaches and listen when they make suggestions about eating, it makes them important allies in sending positive messages about healthful food and beverages.

According to Nelson, "The food environment in youth sport exposes kids and their families to many unhealthful foods and beverages and few healthful options. Youth who participate in sports spend considerable time in these activities outside of school, and these sport environments are likely to influence their eating behavior." Lead author, Megan Thomas, MPH, RD, adds, "Parents should be concerned about what their children are eating, because good nutrition has benefits beyond weight management and is important for optimizing performance."

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