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Helping Young Athletes Make Healthy Food Choices

Girls playing soccer; Tips to Help Young Athletes Make Healthy Food ChoicesMadison, Wisconsin – If your child plays an organized sport, chances are you’ve encountered the following scenario: it’s snack time for the team and out come the cookies, fruit snacks and sports drinks. You know it’s not the best option, but it’s what the kids seem to enjoy, so what do you do?

“Work with other parents to try and plan healthier alternatives, like mini-sandwiches, or even something as simple as bananas and chocolate milk,” says Marcy Braun, nutritionist with UW Health’s Pediatric Fitness Clinic. “Parents can get caught up in trying to cater to kids’ desires, rather than providing what is healthy for active bodies.”

Braun, who is a parent of athletes, suggests packing a cooler with sandwich items – deli meat, cheese, vegetables – along with fruit and milk to help bridge the time between lunch and dinner when kids may have games or practice.

“With after-school activities, it can be several hours since lunch. It is important to provide fuel or they will run out of steam during practice or eat too fast, too much at dinner,” she says. “It may surprise some parents, but low-fat chocolate milk actually offers the right balance of carbs and protein and can be a quick and easy option.”

Sports drinks, on the other hand, are not the panacea that commercials would have you believe.

“They’re just another form of sugar. And, the acid from the drinks is harsh on the teeth,” she comments.

Braun goes on to explain that sports drinks were formulated to serve a distinct need – when an athlete is dehydrated or exercising hard for more than 90 minutes. If your child likes them, she suggests setting limits such as drinking only while playing in the game. “Sports drinks are not a good substitute for milk or water at a meal or when hanging out watching TV.”

Keeping kids properly fueled in the face of hectic schedules, team snacks and even concession stands can be a challenge. But that’s when other parents and coaches can help make a difference.

“Group meals and team snacks can model appropriate eating for athletes. Kids do better when adults are in charge of the food,” Braun explains.

Among Braun’s suggestions is checking in with the coach and team manager at the beginning of the season to find out their philosophy on healthy eating and parental involvement. Being able to say, “Coach doesn’t want the team eating candy or doughnuts during a meet” gives parents the support they need when kids are pushing for junk food. And working together with other parents can help make it a positive experience for everyone.

“Parents need to set limits. It’s their job,” says Braun, but she acknowledges the challenge in certain environments, like the proximity of the concession stand.

Most parents of athletes have been to tournaments or meets where the typical concession-stand fare – hot dogs, nachos, candy bars and soda – can be a powerful lure for any kid.

“Concession stands offer kids a sense of independence in addition to the attraction of the treats,” Braun comments. “Having a strategy for managing the situation is crucial.”

Rather than finding yourself worn down by relentless requests for money to go get a snack, have a cooler stocked with fruit, cheese, water and similar healthier options. And make expectations clear before arriving at the location, such as, ‘no concessions until after your event.’ Braun also points to another common scenario – the after-the-game fast food meal. Once again, having clear limits is important.

“Consider setting guidelines such as no soda, and a salad instead of fries, or no more than one fried item,” Braun suggests. “Really, what you’re doing is helping to create a sense that, as an athlete, you have to take care of your body in order to be able to play your best.”

She explains that parents need to make sure there are carbohydrates, protein, fruit and vegetables with meals. And for competitive, high-school level athletes, make sure they get carbs and protein within the first hour following a game or practice to help restore energy for the next day.

Another important consideration is timing of meals. Practices or games can disrupt normal routines, but that shouldn’t disrupt meals. On school days, kids may find there are too many hours between lunch and dinner as a result of after-school practice. Even on weekends, time with friends and sleeping late can sometimes result in a scramble to get to a game on time. Rather than reaching for a candy bar, or even worse, going without, kids can have peanut butter toast or a smoothie in the car. It may not sound like a lot, but the mix of protein and carbs can help keep kids fueled.

And it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Athletics may only be a hobby, but paying attention to snacks and meals can help establish a lifelong positive relationship with food.

“We don’t want kids going into adult life thinking, ‘I exercised so it’s okay to eat whatever I want,’” Braun concludes. “Setting limits, and modeling effective ways to stay hydrated and fueled, teaches nutrition in a way that will stay with your child for a lifetime.”


Date Published: 03/22/2012

News tag(s):  pediatric fitness