Unhealthy Foods Surround Youth Sports
June 20, 2012

Unhealthy Foods Surround Youth Sports

Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com

Getting in exercise. Learning about teamwork. These are a few of the benefits of joining a sport at a young age. However, there can be some drawbacks in the nutrition department when children participate in youth sports. Researchers recently announced they found that young adults who are involved in organized sports can many times be unhealthy, specifically due to the unhealthy food that is found in the environment.

The research findings, which will be published in the July/August 2012 edition of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, were pooled from interviews with parents of players who were involved in youth basketball programs. The parents reported that common food in youth sports settings were sweets such as candy, ice cream, and doughnuts. Notwithstanding, student athletes also consumed salty snacks like pizza, hot dogs, “taco-in-a-bag,” chips, cheese puffs, nachos. They also drank sugary sodas and sports beverages. Apart from the food that was provided, the parents stated that they often visited fast-food restaurants like McDonald´s or Dairy Queen when their children participated in sports. All in all, parents believed that these options were unhealthy, but busy schedules of practices and games made them more dependent on food that was convenient rather than healthy beverages and snacks.

"Parents should be concerned about what their children are eating, because good nutrition has benefits beyond weight management and is important for optimizing performance," noted lead author, Megan Thomas, in a prepared statement.

The project, conducted by scientists from the University of Minnesota, included eight focus groups of 60 parents of youth basketball players. While parents considered that their children were exposed to an unhealthy food environment, they were also ambivalent about the food and beverage options available in youth sports. They saw snacking as something that was done every once in awhile and rationalized the unhealthy eating because they believed that their children were healthy. Parents also demonstrated difficulty in determining if some food and beverage choices were healthy. They showed concern about the feasibility of making healthy food and beverages available at youth sports venues.

“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," remarked Toben F. Nelson, principal investigator of this study, in a prepared statement.

Furthermore, the study highlighted that, even though parents are aware that the foods available in the sports community aren´t the most nutritious, only a few have tried to improve the situation.

"These findings suggest the importance of helping parents understand the benefits of healthful eating for all children, regardless of their current weight status, and of helping parents feel empowered to create a healthful food environment for their children despite time obstacles," commented investigator Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer in the statement.

Moving forward, investigators believe that the food climate of youth sports could possibly change in the future.  The researchers provided a few recommendations to promote healthy habits in youth sports. For example, coaches and older peer mentors could promote messages on nutrition. As well, youth sports leagues, public health professionals, and dietitians could collaborate on delivering positive messages about nutrition for youth sports participants as well as developing solutions to improve the types of food and beverages available in youth sports settings. Likewise, nutrition guidelines could be created for sports leagues in regards to the food and beverages sold in concession stands.

According to the National Council of Youth Sports, over 44 million youth are involved in organized sports each year. As well, past studies demonstrated that children who participate in youth sports have a higher chance of consuming sport drinks and products from fast-food restaurants than children who aren´t involved in sports.