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Talking Sports Nutrition: Parents May Not Be Best Messengers

Kids more likely to listen to athletes and registered dietitians, says University of Tennesse's Allison Maurer, RD

A 2012 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota1 contains some troubling findings about parents' attitudes towards sports and healthy nutrition.

In light of the study's recommendations on how to promote healthy nutrition among youth athletes,  MomsTEAM decided to ask sports nutrition expert Allison Maurer, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS of the University of Tennessee and Education Chair of the  Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA), for her advice on improving nutrition among youth athletes:

MomsTEAM: The focus groups in the study suggested that youth sport athletes would be receptive to messages about healthful eating habits that emphasized sport performance.  Do you agree? Grilled chicken frajita salad

Maurer: This can't be more true. When I speak to our kids' sports camps, the kids are SO excited to ask questions about nutrition, to talk about what they ate, when they ate, etc. It is so much fun to see how sponge-like they are. They LOVE this kind of stuff.

MomsTEAM: One of the troubling findings in the study is that parents appear to be looking for someone or something to blame - anyone but themselves - for their kids' unhealthy eating habits during sports. What do you think can be done to motivate and/or educate parents on ways to help their kids make more healthy food choices before, during, and after sports?

Maurer: The parent who made the comment about someone else coming to talk to their kids was right on. So many times kids hear their parents say the same thing over and over. When it comes from a fresh face, role model or just someone different, the message is heard. Parent groups, team moms and dads, whoever, need to be more proactive in finding a professional to talk to the team, coaches and parents at the beginning of a season. Not just an athlete, but Sports RD's (registered dietitians) who work with athletes on a daily basis and can give everyone involved proper direction.

Parents need to be role models. If kids grow up going through the drive thru to and from games or practices, most likely they will continue to do that when they drive themselves. We know what is healthy and not healthy. A grilled chicken snack wrap vs. a double cheeseburger or a bottled water vs. a Coke. We know what is better and we cannot use "I don't know what is healthy" as an excuse. The biggest motivation for parents can be to advocate for their own children.

Travel organizations or even small club leagues most likely have a manual of team etiquette, schedules, practice and game times, proper conduct and other rules. They should include a nutrition section in those manuals. Lists of permissible and non-permissible snacks and drinks to provide after games and practices and lists of the top foods to include during travel games and tournaments.

As a mother myself, I even get caught up in the snack debate, with myself. I am in the "snacks after games" stage and I catch myself not wanting to be the boring mom bringing bottled water and granola bars after a game. I don't want my kid to have the "mom who brings water," so I understand the challenge of giving kids what they want versus what is best.

A way to avoid that is to have guidelines set in place regarding post-game snacks. As for older kids and traveling teams, the same thing should apply. Parents can pool money together, send one person on a grocery run and have a list of foods that are to be purchased to avoid concession stand nightmares.

MomsTEAM: What can parents be told that will help them and their young athletes understand the role proper nutrition plays in achieving peak athletic performance?

Maurer: That all really depends on the age group you are working with:

  • Young kids respond to anything. My 5-year-old said the other day, "If you eat unhealthy food you won't be able to get strong."  It is a message that simple for the young kids. Talk about "sometimes foods" and "always foods". The always foods will keep them strong and healthy and make them run faster. Tell them water is good for their bodies and keeps them from getting tired. At those younger ages, athletic peak performance is parents surviving another tee-ball game! Athletic peak performance is also getting a youngster out of bed, in a uniform and to the field on time. If that is accomplished, they have hit their peak performance for the day.
  • Older kids really do respond well to outsiders talking about nutrition. Getting them to understand the basics of nutrition, 3 meals and some snacks during the day, and not looking to supplements as a way to get bigger, stronger and faster. Again, most kids do not want to hear their parents tell them yet again that "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," but finding a way to get that message across is vital.  A good resource is Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA), a group of professionals that works with collegiate, professional and military personnel and has a wealth of knowledge in sports nutrition. You can find a Sports RD near you at www.sportsrd.org. Here you can find RD's who work with athletes, to talk to your athletes. 

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.

Posted June 29, 2012


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