By Julie Deardorff, Tribune newspapers
February 24, 2012
We parents like to believe that signing the kids up for soccer, hockey and other sports can keep them lean and fit.
But there’s a surprising lack of evidence showing that sports participation prevents obesity in children, according to a recent review of the existing research. In fact, kids who play sports are more likely to eat fast food, drink soda and consume more total calories overall, according to the article published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, a journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.
The researchers also found that kids participating in athletics tend to eat more fruits, vegetables and drink more milk than those who don’t. But if you’re a parent with an athletic child, you’ve probably already observed that something is seriously out of balance.
Sports are nearly synonymous with junk food. Sports venues almost always offer candy, soda or ice cream; when the kids start badgering you at 9 a.m., it makes for a long day of saying 'no.' In youth sports leagues, parents volunteer to organize snack schedules; in soccer, kids get treats and halftime and after the game, though they are not lacking for energy or fuel.
These sweet rewards, meanwhile, are often packaged convenience foods such as cookies, chips, soda or “fruit” snacks, which can total 300 to 500 calories or more, the researchers noted in the study. A typical 8 year old will expend about an additional 150 calories in an hour of high intensity sport activity, assuming that at least part of the time they are sitting on the bench, said Toben Nelson, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade are perhaps even more insidious. Most kids don’t need the sweetened beverages and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids avoid them. Yet they’re commonly marketed to and used by young athletes. Often they’re positioned as a healthy alternative to soda, when in fact, water is the best choice.
If kids are eating more calories than they’re burning, “it’s hard for sport to prevent obesity,” said Nelson, the study’s lead author.
Time pressures associated with sports events can lead to more fast food purchases, which tend to be more convenient but less healthy. And family meals may be sacrificed, the researchers said.
Still, while all these factors contribute to the problem, it’s unclear what contributes most to obesity. The real question is how we can change the way we organize sports opportunities for kids and whether this will make a difference, Nelson said.
“I think that the combination of the demands on families with kids in sport for convenience foods and the heavy marketing and easy accessibility to convenience foods (which are mostly of very poor nutritional value) in sport settings are a very big part of the story,” he said. “We need to understand this better.”
In response to criticism that their products may be contributing to the obesity epidemic, major food and beverage companies, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have launched dozens of health and wellness initiatives designed to promote physical activity and movement, which I recently detailed in "Beverage-makers build playgrounds, draw criticism." Stressing balance, moderation and sensible choices, the corporations are funding playgrounds and elementary school fitness centers as well as partnering with groups that advocate exercise and youth sports participation.
Youth sport, meanwhile, “is a perfect marketing vehicle for food and beverage companies, especially for products that are not particularly healthy,” said Nelson. The companies get good exposure and associate even fairly unhealthy products with healthy activities, he said. “Youth sport organizations are eager to partner with these companies because they provide funding for things like uniforms, other equipment and practice facilities, which keeps entry costs down for families. It's win-win..., except of course for the health of the kids and families.”
Recommendations for parents and young athletes can be found at the Healthy Youth Sports Study.
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