By Cara Barone, MD, FAAP |
Every day at work as a pediatrician I talk about healthy lifestyle habits. I never have as much time as I would like for this discussion, but I always make a point to discuss the importance of exercise and nourishing our bodies with wholesome foods. My goal is to try and motivate children and families to make healthier choices wherever and whenever I can.
Children look to their parents as sources of information and inspiration. Modeling a healthy lifestyle as a parent is critical to a solid foundation in their children’s development of their own health habits. As parents I think we intuitively know this, but it is always important to remind one another of this awesome role in our children’s lives.
In the merging of my mom and pediatrician roles, one of my biggest personal struggles so far is the culture of “the sport snack.” So many of us have children in American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), basketball leagues, swim teams, and other team sports which clearly foster much physical and emotional development for our children. We want our children to have a love for exercise and to continue this interest and dedication throughout their lifetimes. But as my husband says: “It’s all about the snack and uniform” for the majority of young kids. I’m certain there is much truth in his statement.
So last year for my first snack duty for my son’s basketball league game I packed water, cheese sticks, and bananas to bring for his teammates. Needless to say, my snack was not met with warm reception from the children–what kind of unsavory snack was this??
As the season went on, I observed the other snack offerings. Juice boxes, large white bagels, chocolate granola bars, chips, gummy fruits, and cookies. Given the general chaos after a game, I have noticed it is hard for parents to monitor their child’s individual snacking. I have seen children down a few juice boxes and have seconds and thirds on snacks without their parents even being aware.
This year on our AYSO team I see similar snack offerings of junk food all around me on the fields. It cements my opinion that our parent culture is to bring the “cool snack” that will wow the children. After all, it’s all about the snack. Read again: it’s all about the snack. And we parents are the ones to make the snack choices for our children in these team sporting events. So– shouldn’t our duty as parents be to promote healthy lifestyles collectively? We should applaud ourselves for getting our kids out and enjoying exercise, but we also have the responsibility to teach them to respect wholesome foods as part of their healthy lifestyle habits. The reward for exercise shouldn’t be junk food. Snacks should be wholesome, portion controlled, and should further the teaching that a healthy lifestyle means exercise + good nutrition. Together we must become better parent role models and stewards of healthy lifestyles in our children. Our children’s health depends on us working together as a village of caretakers.
Children don’t need the calories and sugar in juice to replenish their hydration. Add to that the grams of sugar in the average juice box (that’s between 2 to 8 teaspoons of sugar per 6 oz juice box!), loss of true nutritive value in the processing of whole fruits into juice, plus all the chemical or other additives in juices. Another reason we pediatricians counsel against juices and other sugary drinks (sodas, sports drinks) is that our bodies don’t have the same satiety reflexes with liquids as they do with whole foods–meaning it is very easy to consume hundreds of calories from juices and sugary drinks without feeling full. Water is the perfect rehydration fluid for children AND it is calorie free, sugar free and additive free. Can’t beat that!
Ideas for healthy snacks choices that don’t require a lot of parental work include fresh fruits, cheese sticks, raisins, air-popped popcorn, graham crackers, carrot sticks or other raw veggies, cheerios or other low sugar whole grain cereals, dried fruits without added sugar, mini whole wheat bagels with cream cheese or humus, and whole grain pretzels.
I believe we can change the sport snack culture together, and we should pledge to do this together as a national parent and pediatrician team. We are the only regulatory body for snack choices in our youth sports. We must lead by example. Before long we won’t get disapproving glares from our children. Our children will happily accept our healthy snack offerings. Their bodies will be thankful for true nutritive and wholesome refueling. And as parents we will all feel proud knowing we are teaching our children together the importance of what a healthy lifestyle is all about.
Cara Barone, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician and mother of two. She did her pediatric residency in the Boston Combined Pediatric Program and a fellowship in Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston. She happily practices general pediatrics at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in the Palo Alto division.