(This blog post originally appeared on Huffington Post)
I am a pediatric dietitian who will eat and allow my kids to have cookies, brownies and cupcakes on occasion. Much of their exposure to these foods is during birthday parties or holiday celebrations, but they also eat sweet treats in the house that I make myself. And I believe that is the way sweets should be handled with kids… as an occasional treat. To have cupcakes, candy, brownies, chips and sugary drinks brought by parents and handed weekly to our kids on the soccer fields after their games sends the wrong nutritional message. Would you eat a cupcake after your five-mile run? I doubt it. Then why are we feeding our kids this way?
I am not the only one upset about the food brought to the soccer fields. I am writing this because week after week, parents complain to me from all over the country about the types of soccer snacks served in their towns. They are outraged and fed up. And they should be.
One parent wrote me about a donut situation in which another parent brought several big, pink boxes full of donuts as post-game fare. (There were extra donuts for all siblings present at the game too.) The upset mom told me that she does give her son sweets, but had not made the trip down to the local donut shop yet. She was frustrated that his first exposure to donuts — huge bear claws no less! — was after his soccer game. Since that snack, her kid is now more excited about after-game snacks than the soccer game itself.
Other families complain to me about the timing of when these snacks are offered. For example, there is an 11 a.m. game which ends at noon. Lunch time, right? Wrong. First, it’s soccer snack time. The kids line up for post-game snack and are handed brownies, chips or cookies with juice to wash it all down. Do you know what this does to a kid’s appetite for lunch? You guessed it. Their body is filled to the brim with sugar, and any fruits or vegetables that may have been on a lunch menu after the game don’t stand a chance. No parent would give their child a brownie right before they ate their lunch. Yet, when soccer games end near lunchtime, that’s exactly what is happening.
By far the most disheartening stories I hear are from those parents trying desperately to encourage their overweight or obese child to become more active. Soccer is a terrific sport for many of these kids. The pace is fast and fun and the calorie burn can be significant. But the calories burned are rendered irrelevant by the post-game snack. Week after week, well-intentioned parents see these snacks chip away (pun kind of intended) at the plan to help their kid.
I know there are parents who will disagree with what I have to say and may think if the kids are not overweight, who cares. The truth of the matter is it doesn’t matter whether the kids are overweight or not, pumping our kids full of sugar after exercise is a physiologic mistake. I am sure all parents can agree on one thing: We want what is best for our kids. Well, I can tell you what is nutritionally best for kids. These sugary snacks are unhealthy and don’t teach kids anything about optimizing their actively, growing bodies. There is nothing I can find in the sports medicine literature that states refueling with simple sugar and trans-fatty acids is a wise nutritional decision. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many other medical professionals and parents I have spoken to, fresh fruit and water seem to be the perfect after-game snack. I have not spoken directly with Michelle Obama yet, but I suspect she will also agree with me on this one.
Here is how we solve this problem: Soccer leagues must take the initiative to set snack rules at the beginning of the season and enforce them with coaches and parents. An approved snack list should be provided to all parents that shows what they can bring to the field; bananas, grapes, watermelon, kiwi, oranges, apples or other fresh fruit make the list. Nothing else qualifies. Very few child athletes around our country need electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks. The vast majority do not need them, so water should suffice. Let’s also use this opportunity to teach the kids to be environmentally conscious. Each kid brings a full water bottle from home.
Save the cupcakes and cookies for birthday parties, holidays and occasional desserts at home. Keep them away from the soccer fields. This soccer snack insanity in America has to stop and leagues have to take action immediately.