Do Sports Derail Children’s Healthy Eating Habits?

A new study says “yes.”

University of Minnesota researchers interviewed the parents of 60 youth basketball players and found that the young athletes commonly had sweets, such as candy, ice cream and doughnuts; pizza; hot dogs; salty snacks, including chips, nachos and cheese puff and soda and sports drinks.

The parents also reported frequent visits to fast-food restaurants when their children were playing sports.

And, even though the parents agreed that these foods and beverages are unhealthy, they said rushing to practices and games made them rely more on these types of products due to their convenience.

The researchers also found that parents had difficulty determining whether certain foods and drinks were healthy. In addition, the parents had doubts about whether it was possible for concession stands at youth sports venues to offer healthy choices.

The study reflects reality

Many parents do, in fact, turn to fast and convenience foods when their kids and teens are involved in sports. Families these days are already stretched thin on time, and being involved in a sport can be a time-consuming activity for the entire household.

Additionally, kids and teens who are involved in sports have higher energy (calorie) needs. “Convenience and fast foods are packed full of the energy these kids need for fuel,” said Laura Hooper, MS, RD, CD, a clinical pediatric dietician at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Unfortunately, these foods often don’t have the balance of nutrients important for maintaining both performance and overall health,”

Hooper noted that this new data shouldn’t discourage parents from supporting their children and teens as they participate in sports and other activities they really like. “Helping children find a fun physical activity they can participate in and enjoy on a regular basis is one of the most beneficial things parents can do to support their kids’ physical and emotional health,” added Hooper.

How parents can help their athletic child eat healthier

When it comes to eating before, during and after sporting events, it’s important to take time to plan ahead for nutritious, energy-dense meals and snacks. Hooper offers these practical tips for parents to ensure their child athletes get the good nutrition they need:

  • Provide your child or teen with three meals and two-three snacks per day, especially on event days.
  • Bringing food from home can help eliminate the need for convenience and fast food at the last minute.
  • Teaming up with other parents can help ensure that there are plenty of well-balanced meals and snacks available for the team at longer events such as soccer tournaments and swim meets.
  • Provide your child or teen with plenty of water. Sports drinks such as Gatorade or Powerade should be used during play that lasts longer than 60 minutes.

If parents have additional questions, Hooper recommends consulting a sports dietitian, or considering a referral to the Nutrition Clinic at Seattle Children’s Hospital, to help develop an individualized sports nutrition plan.


If you’d like to arrange an interview with pediatric dietician Laura Hooper, please contact the Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at [email protected].