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Snack Food for Thought
July 10th, 2008 1PM
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By Emily Cohen

Since when did the postgame (or, in some cases, pregame and halftime, too) snack become the focal point of youth recreational soccer games? And when did it become the latest installment of "Keeping up with the Joneses"?

After talking with some mothers, a few fathers, and several youth sports coaches, I am convinced that the snack situation has gotten completely out of hand. Some of the stories I heard were enough to make me scream -- or at least drop my jaw. I submit to you the following examples:

* A U8 boys team had a multi-course, postgame snack catered by a nearby high-end delicatessen and packaged into individual goodie bags like party favors.

* A U6 girls team had a pregame snack of donuts as well as a halftime snack of granola bars, juice bags, and pomegranate seeds (?), in addition to a full postgame luncheon with sandwiches and chips.

* A player on a U10 boys team questioned the parent providing snacks not only about the organic nature of the processed snack, but then followed up with a question about the percentage of organic ingredients in the bar.

Oy vey! Whatever happened to the water and orange slices of my youth? I began to wonder, "Do kids really need all this food and drink before, during, and after exercise or do these over-the-top snacks actually contradict the benefits of the exercise itself? And are kids really "more motivated to play" -- as one parent assured me -- because of the prospect of a snack at halftime and after the game?

I decided to ask the experts.

"Today's youth sports culture says that kids are only going to participate if they are rewarded with a snack," Dr. Dana Weintraub, clinical instructor of general pediatrics at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and project director of the Sports to Prevent Obesity Randomized Trial (SPORT) at Stanford University, told me. "But the reality is that parents have created this culture of the importance of snack. Frankly, most kids are more excited about the physical activity and camaraderie than the snack."

So parents are not only creating but also reinforcing this connection between snacks and sports. And what effect does this have in the long term? Says Dr. Weintraub, "When you think about it, at the older, more competitive levels, it's usually the kids who are less fit -- more overweight -- that aren't getting the playing time. The snack culture ends up hurting those kids even more."

OK, so that answered my second question, but what about the first one? Do young athletes really need all these sports drinks and catered snacks during and after games? "Absolutely not," says Dr. Weintraub. "For kids who are playing recreational sports, all they really need during the game is water. And kids who drink Gatorade and eat a typical snack after the game can easily take in more calories than they expend."

So, rather than elaborate halftime and catered postgame snacks, what should parents be giving their young athletes before and after a match to encourage peak performance? According to Dr. Dev Mishra, a team physician with the U.S. Soccer Federation, it breaks down like this:

Before a match, a player should not eat or drink anything that's going to cause stomach upset. This means staying away from foods with refined sugars and packaged fruit juices and soft drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup, which are known to cause tummyaches.

Says Mishra, "Fresh fruit, peanut butter sandwiches, bagels, and anything relatively natural up to two hours before the match are all great pregame nutritional choices. Donuts are not the right fuel for young children's bodies whether they're playing on the soccer field or the jungle gym."

At halftime, Dr. Mishra concurs with Dr. Weintraub: "The old standby of freshly sliced oranges and water works perfectly well for the vast majority of kids. Most young kids just don't perspire that much and their needs to replace fluids at halftime are not as high as an elite-level athlete. And any food is going to cause problems with stomach cramping. If you're eating at halftime, your blood is going to go to your stomach not to fueling your body in the physical activity."

After the match, Dr. Mishra says, "Probably the best postmatch drink is low-fat chocolate milk. It's got so much in it that's beneficial: carbohydrates from chocolate and natural, healthy proteins that are very useful for a growing child's body. Plus, most kids like it and will readily drink it."

Maybe it's time to change the snack culture and take the focus off the snacks during and after recreational-level soccer games. Many elite-level teams do just that -- each parent is responsible for his or her own child's nutrition and hydration.

Let's let the game itself become the reward again. As my son said when I asked him what he enjoys about playing sports, "First, it's fun. Second, it's the love of the game. And finally, it's being with my friends."

Funny. He didn't mention the homemade triple-chocolate brownies I brought for snack last week.

(Emily Cohen is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the mother of a son, 12, and a daughter, 8, who both play multiple sports. She has been a team manager for her children's soccer, baseball and softball teams.)

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