Marion and Leif had 8-year-old twins, Gus and Lucia, who had a soccer match every Saturday morning. Each week one family was assigned to bring an after-game snack and drinks for the team. Often, the beverage was a sports-drink and the snacks were sweet and high in fat like cookies or muffins. Many of the children on the team sat for most of the game and, of the children that played, there wasn’t a lot of running because there were so many players on the field. Marion and Leif had their children eat a balanced breakfast before heading to the fields and would be having lunch as a family after the game. They were perplexed why the children would need a snack in the middle of the morning after such limited exercise.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 1 in 5 children and adolescents are overweight or obese. In total 378 million youth carry too much weight; in absolute terms, this number has increased tenfold in the last four decades. In 1975, only 4% of children and teens were overweight or obese, but today it is nearly 20%. Being obese in childhood can cause premature death and disability, breathing difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and psychological effects.
The research is clear that childhood obesity and excess weight is closely linked to the quality and frequency of food consumption. The good news is that obesity is largely preventable by making changes in when and what foods are consumed. On a family level, parents can reduce their child’s risk of being overweight or obese by limiting high-sugar and low-quality fat (e.g. palm oil) foods, eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts, and participating in regular exercise. For children, this is generally defined as 60 minutes of exercise every day.
Parents like Marion and Leif were very supportive of having Gus and Lucia exercise by practicing soccer and playing in games on the weekend. However, they were concerned that the post-game snacks were offsetting the benefits of the exercise their children were getting through sport. Recent research confirms what Marion and Leif were suspecting.
New studies have found that snacks and drinks served during or immediately after sporting activities of children provided more calories than the children burned during the game. On average, children burned 170 calories playing sport and consumed 213 calories from snacks. Many of the snacks or drinks being offered to children were sugar sweetened. While this may not seem like a lot of extra calories, they do add up day after day. Additionally, eating excess calories after exercise is defeating the purpose of play and exercise as a way to use up other extra calories that may have been consumed at other periods in the day.
Parents tend to think that if their child is playing sport that they need a different diet, but for recreational athletics, children and teens don’t need a special diet or extra snacks because this is just normal physical activity for their age and development. Additionally, parents tend to overestimate the number of calories their child is using to play but underestimate the number of calories that their child is consuming from snacks and sweet beverages. Limiting unnecessary food and sugar-sweetened beverages is the first step to support a cultural change so children are exposed to healthier habits.
Recommendations to support health weights and fitness in children and teens include:
- No snacks or food are needed for recreational athletics; these activities are part of a child’s normal activity levels organized into structured play.
- Water is the only beverage that should be offered; energy and sport drinks are not necessary for recreational athletics.
- Children and teens should be encouraged to exercise through structured and unstructured play for 60 minutes each day.
- Teach children that food does not have to be available around the clock; their bodies are made to fill up on energy at mealtimes and can last until the next scheduled meal without additional food between meals.
- Eating is an activity that is done to satisfying hunger. Food is not meant to keep kids busy, be a reward, or a to soothe strong emotions.
By seeing recreational athletics as a normal part of childhood and adolescent play and exercise, parents can reduce the risk of overfeeding children and support their child in maintaining a healthy weight.
About the instructor
Dr. Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.