One of the main reasons parents sign their children up to play soccer, baseball, basketball or other youth sports is the health benefit associated with exercise.
But that benefit is being undermined by the snacks that parents hand out to the young players after the games, a new study has found.
The study, published in the March issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior, uncovered something most parents fail to realize while watching their children munching on post-game treats of chips, cookies and sports drinks: The number of calories in those snacks tend to be much higher than the number of calories the children actually burned off while playing in the game.
“Kids are getting inundated with snack culture all the time — celebrations at school, at birthday parties and youth sports games,” says Lori Spruance, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of public health at Brigham Young University, in a released statement. “We don’t need to load children up with sugar after a game too.”
Where the idea came from
The idea to conduct this study emerged from the personal experiences of another of the study’s authors, Jay Maddock, a professor of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M University, as he explains in an article for The Conversation:
When I was growing up in the 1980s, I loved playing youth basketball and baseball leagues. Twenty-five years later, I was excited to enroll my sons in youth sports, including basketball, soccer and flag football.
However, from the first team meeting, something was different. The coach passed around a sign-up sheet to bring a grab-and-go snack for the team. I was surprised by this. When I was growing up, the only sport that had a snack was soccer, and that was oranges and water at half time. Why did these kids need a snack at 2 in the afternoon?
I signed up later in the season to see what the other parents were bringing as snacks. I was even more surprised when the snack turned out to be a hot dog in a bun, a bag of chips, a cookie and a sports drink! My son had just eaten lunch a couple of hours before and had only played for 20 minutes.
I thought to myself: They have got to be consuming more calories than they expended. A few years later, Lori Spruance and I decided to test this and find out if it was true.
How the study was done
For the study, Spruance and a team of her students watched 189 recreational games of soccer, flag football, baseball and softball played by third- and fourth-grade students. The games were both mixed-gender and single-gender, but boys played in most (78 percent) of them. The average length of the games was 56 minutes.
The researchers randomly selected four children to observe during each game. They recorded how much physical activity each child engaged in, both on and off the field, on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = nothing; 5 = running).
They also made detailed notes about the size and type of food and/or beverage offered to the children during halftime or after the conclusion of the game. (Most often, the snacks were provided at the end of the game.) Later, they calculated nutrition information, including calorie counts, for each of the snacks.
“We found that, on average, children got 27 minutes of [moderate-to-vigorous] physical activity per game and burned about 170 calories,” writes Maddock in the article for The Conversation. “We were not surprised to find that children playing soccer were the most active, and softball players were the least active.”
Both the physical activity and the calories burned off were significantly higher for boys than for girls. During their games, boys spent an average of 29.2 minutes being physically active, burning off an average of 173.5 calories per game. Girls spent an average of 21.5 minutes being active, burning off an average of 154.1 calories per game.
Current U.S. physical activity guidelines recommend that children get 60 minutes of physical activity daily starting at around age 5.
In four out of five of the games (78 percent), parents served a post-game snack. The children were usually offered at least two types of snacks and/or two types of beverages. The most common snacks offered were baked goods (such as brownies, cookies, cakes and doughnuts), followed by fruit snacks, crackers and chips. The most common beverages offered were fruit drinks (not the same as 100 percent fruit juice) and sports drinks.
“When a snack was served, it averaged 213 calories — on average, 43 more calories than the children had expended playing the sport,” Maddock points out.
Those 213 calories also represent about 10 percent of the maximum daily calories that the U.S. dietary guidelines recommend for somewhat active children aged 9 to 13.
“We were even more disturbed that the average amount of sugar provided was 26.4 grams, exceeding the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 25 grams of sugar per day,” Maddock adds.
“Beverages stood out as a major contributor of sugar,” he adds. “In the 145 games where a beverage was served, soda, fruit drinks and sports drinks were served over 85% of the time. Water (3%), milk (1%) and 100% fruit juice (8%) were almost never served. Sugar from drink (18.3 grams) per serving exceeded sugar from snacks (12.3 grams).”
Limitations and implications
The study comes with caveats. A relatively small number of children were observed, and the researchers calculated calorie counts only for the snacks and beverages offered to the children. They didn’t record the actual foods eaten by each child — a factor that may have led them to overestimate the children’s post-game consumption of calories.
Still, the study’s findings shouldn’t be dismissed by parents, particularly since other research has found that children with high physical activity levels also tend to drink a lot of sugary beverages — “which may be related to the [sugar-sweetened beverages] offered as part of youth sport participation,” Spruance and Maddock point out.
“So many kids are at games just to get their treat afterwards, which really isn’t helping to develop healthy habits long term,” says Spruance. “The reward should be, ‘I got to have fun. I got to run around with my friend or score a goal.’”
Spruance and Maddock recommend that youth sports programs distribute a fact sheet to parents about what makes a good, healthful snack — things like mixed nuts, fresh fruit, string cheese, dried fruit and granola bars.
And, of course, plain water.
“Little changes can make a big difference in promoting healthy body weights in our children,” says Maddock.
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the American Journal of Health Behavior website, but the full paper is behind a paywall.