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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

Ambivalence and resignation

The study also brought to light that, despite parent awareness of the poor food and beverage choices that are prevalent in youth sport, few parents attempted to change the situation, though they thought their children would benefit from information being provided in handouts, posted on the team Web site, or presented at a team meeting, not by parents, but by coaches or high school mentors, and suggested that youth in sport might be quite receptive to messages about healthful eating habits that emphasized sports performance.

Most parents questioned the feasibility of providing healthful food and beverages at youth sports venues, particularly in concession stands, citing a number of barriers to change (concern over losing profits by selling healthful food, limited availability of healthful, non-perishable, prepackaged food at stores where concession food is typically bought (e.g. large discount stores such as Sam's Club), although a number of parents offered sugggestions on ways to improve concession stand fare by including more healthful options and rearranging the layout of food and beverages to make more healthful food more prominent and visually appealing.

Despite finding that parents considered youth sport an unhealthy food environment, parents were ambivalent about the food and beverage choices available in youth sports, viewing snacks as an occasional treat, and sometimes rationalizing unhealthful eating because they saw their child as healthy.  Nelson didn't find this attitude surprising at all, noting that "many food companies promote the notion that it's okay to eat their food and just exercise it off.  In fact, industry guidelines, he says, "promote marketing of unhealthy food in exactly this way."

Parents had difficulty determining whether some food and beverage options were healthful. They also expressed concern about whether making healthful food and beverages more available at youth sport venues, particularly in concession stands, was feasible.  

"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," says investigator Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, RD.

Improving sports diets

Despite the study's findings, researchers believed that youth sport is a promising setting for promoting nutrition.  To promote healthful dietary habits among youth sports participants, the researchers recommended:

  • Integrating nutrition messages into youth sport programs;
  • Developing collaboration between youth sport leagues, public health professionals, and dietitians to create positive messages about nutrition specific to youth sport and which can be delivered by coaches and peer mentors;
  • Enlist coaches and older peer mentors to deliver key nutrition messages, develop nutrition guidelines for sport leagues regarding the types of food and beverages that are appropriate for organized snack schedules and concession stands; and explore feasible ways to improve the nutritional quality of food and beverages available and sold in youth sport settings;
  • Develop user-friendly nutrition education materials for parents, coaches, and youth sports participants:
    • For parents:
      • provide simple and convenient ways to prepare healthful meals and snacks within the time constrains of youth sports; and
      • provide answers to commonly asked questions about nutrition and sport performance
      • raise awareness about what constitutes a healthful diet for youth involved in sport
      • inform them about the potential health effects of frequently consuming the unhealthful food and beverages available to youth who participate in sports, and
      • counter the atttitude held by parents that youth who participate in sports are less susceptible to the consequences of unhealthful eating because they are physically active in sports, and empower them to take steps to improve the food and beverages available to youth during sports.
    • For coaches: provide evidence-based talking points to deliver nutrition to youth sport participants;
    • For league administrators:
      • provide materials to increase awareness about the importance of promoting healthful dietary habits, including taking an active role in promoting water as the perceived beverage and avoiding sports drinks because they put children and adolescents at increased risk of becoming overweight or obese.
      • train coaches about nutrition education (for specific recommendations, click here]
      • set guidelines for snacks that are provided by parents
      • institute policies about not rewarding sports performance with treats
      • stock concession stands with healthier food choices, using Institute of Medicine and U.S.D.A. guidelines.  "Instead of trying to squeeze every last nickel out of families in sport by selling them unhealthy food, sport organizations could instead choose to create an environment that is healthy for kids and their families. Parents can take an active role in trying to make this happen," says Nelson.

Study details

Researchers recruited a so-called "convenience sample" of 60 parents of youth basketball players in an in-house (e.g. recreational) league or travel program in Bloomington and Minneapolis, and divided them into eight focus groups. The Minneapolis league served primarily African-Americans and families of low to middle socioeconomic status, while the Bloomington league served primarily white families of middle to high socioeconomic status. Approximately two-thirds (64%) in the Minneapolis group and nearly all participants (94%) in Bloomington were mothers. Most (72%) were parents of at least 1 male child.  Participants were asked questions about

  • snacks (how handled, type typically consumed, ideal snack)
  • beverages (type, ideal beverage)
  • decision-making (satisfaction with types of snacks and beverages brought to youth sports contests, concern about whether kids getting nutritious snacks and beverages; how snacks and beverages organized, who is charge);
  • sports league guidelines (feelings about league guidelines about types of snacks and beverages available; what are appropriate types of food and beverages should be offered)
  • meal choices (how family typically handles getting to games/practices with getting them fed; satisfaction with how it works for their family, ways family could do better in coordinating meals and youth sports.

Source: University of Minnesota

1.  Thomas M, Nelson TF, Harwood E, Neumark-Sztainer D. Exploring Parent Perceptions of the Food Environment in Youth Sport. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2012;44(4):365-371.

2.  Bragg MA, Yanamadala S, Roberto CA, Harris JL, Brownell KD.  Athlete Endorsements in Food Marketing.  Pediatrics 2013;132:1-6. doi:10.1542/peds.2013-0093 (e pub October 7, 2013).

Posted June 29, 2012; revised July 1, 2012 to include additional comments by Toben Nelson; revised October 7, 2013 to include the 2013 study (n. 2)

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