Kids playing baseball or softball may not be getting quite the exercise benefits their parents think they are, especially when factoring in the damaging nutrition habits that pervade childhood sports these days.
According to a study at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, the benefits from physical activity may be offset, and even overturned, by the negative food environments surrounding youth sports.
“In youth sports settings, a lot of kids are getting some physical activity, but the food environment really is terrible,” said Toben F. Nelson, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the U of M.
“It turns out they don’t burn that many calories when they’re playing, especially in baseball and softball,” Nelson continued.
The Healthy Youth Sports Study looked into areas such as energy balance, how much kids typically burn off in a sports setting and what kind of snacks kids are eating.
“Actually, after kids were in sports, they were likely to be in energy surplus, particularly for younger kids,” Nelson said. “So that seemed to be counter-intuitive and counter-productive to what we’re trying to do from a public health perspective.”
The long stretches of idle standing around in a game like baseball or softball may contribute to the energy surplus, but the poor eating habits common in today’s youth sports environments simply exacerbate the problem.
“We actually did a formal study with parents, and what they reported to us was all kinds of stuff, things I had seen myself as a parent,” said Nelson, who has had several kids play youth baseball. “We saw sports practices that conflicted with family dinners where parents were rushing kids off and making stops along the way for fast food and actually carrying bags of Happy Meals to practices and before games.
“The concession stands that are also at a lot of different places, the vast majority of stuff being sold are not healthy. It doesn’t meet Institute of Medicine standards for school nutrition. Far from it. It’s mostly candy; it’s mostly sugary drinks and a variety of entrees like hot dogs, pizza, some have hamburgers — it’s not healthy.
“So it’s an interesting contrast between kids being physically active and adults feeding them a lot of really junky foods,” Nelson continued. “And it’s not just a once in a while thing for kids who are active in sports. It can be four, up to seven, days a week. So the food environment is generally pretty terrible.”
So what’s the answer to improving the food environment? According to Nelson, it may just boil down to better meal planning by adults.
“Real food instead of heavily-processed, sugary, salty, fatty foods, which is the kind of thing that tends to be provided in these settings,” Nelson said, citing what kids should be eating before and after games and practices. “Families are looking for something that’s convenient, that’s grab-and-go that kids will like, and that’s kind of the default option that families and kids gravitate towards. But there are lots of other kinds of food that meet those criteria with a small amount of planning.”
Parents and coaches can learn more about Dr. Nelson’s Healthy Youth Sports Study here.
The natural next step then is to find ways to avoid the junk food without giving up one’s day job.
Nelson and his team — in particular Michelle Draxten, from the U of M School of Nursing — came up with some tools to help parents and coaches.
“Kids and families want to have stuff that’s convenient, that’s grab-and-go, that can often go for a while without refrigeration or that doesn’t need to be heated up,” Nelson said. “So we tried to really focus on stuff like that, stuff that can be thrown in a lunchbox or a cooler and be ready to go when the kids are ready for them.”
Some of the suggestions on their website for foods to eat during or between sporting events include hummus, cheese, yogurt, pretzels and fruit. For afterwards, spaghetti makes a good meal, as well as fish tacos or even a vegetable and meat stir-fry.
However his team realizes that these types of meals aren’t always realistic.
“Oftentimes, there are multiple games happening at a tournament, with some waiting around time in between, and kids want and probably need something to eat,” said Nelson, whose own kids play youth sports. “So we’ve organized to bring things like fresh fruit, homemade sandwiches and healthier drinks and snacks than what is typically provided at the concession stands.
“That seems to work really well, especially if you can get families to organize a little bit and bring stuff to share.”
Nelson stresses that parents must take the lead when deciding what makes for a good food choice.
“It takes a little bit of planning not to reflexively go, ‘What will kids like?’ because those things tend to be sugar, salts, fats — things that aren’t necessarily good for kids,” Nelson said. “Just that little extra bit of planning in having the kids’ health and well-being in mind when adults are shaping those environments, I think, can go a long way to improving the foods and drinks available in youth sports.”
Nelson said perhaps the biggest obstacle to having kids eat healthily while engaging in physical activity is educating the parents, coaches and sports leagues about the subject — and convincing them that change is necessary.
“I think there’s a certain amount of education that would be helpful,” Nelson said. “But to me, to really see good, positive changes in behavior, the environment needs to change.”
Do you have a go-to healthy snack recipe? Share your recommendations on the GC Sports Facebook page.