Helping girls develop healthy eating habits

Hockey, soccer and volleyball are but a few of the endless sports available to keep girls active. Participation in recreational or competitive sports at a young age helps develop skills, confidence, good health and fitness, as well as helps to reduce risks for obesity and obesity-related diseases.

Adolescence is a critical period for physical growth and development–especially for girls. While sport is healthful in so many ways, it’s vital that young athletes consume enough dietary fuel for the extra energy demands. Furthermore, the timing of meals and snacks can be a challenge when scheduling school, homework, training and competition.

The constant cycle of practicing, playing, winning, losing and doing it again can be especially emotional for young athletes. Food is a quick, easy and accessible emotional bandage for the anxious, depressed or overwhelmed athlete. Parents can help their young athletes develop healthy eating habits by encouraging them to listen to their bodies. If girls eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full, they’ll let their bodies–not their emotions–dictate how much they eat.

Define healthy.
Discuss food (and beverages) as fuel for your athlete daughter. In the words of Catherine Steiner-Adair: ‘There is fuel, and there is fun. Some foods are fun but don’t give your body fuel and in fact might slow your body down. If you eat a lot of sugar, a little while later you may crash and become tired and crabby. And just like a car needs gasoline, your body needs good fuel to keep it running well. That’s why we eat healthy food at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.’

Teach variety.
Explain to your girl why she needs a range of choices to stay healthy. Eating well is key to support every athlete’s training program. Encourage her to eat wholesome foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains (e.g. brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole grain breads, etc.). Involving her in the process of menu planning, food selection and meal preparation may increase the likelihood that she consumes a nutritionally sound and varied diet.

Eat together.
Even when your schedules are tight, sit down and eat together as a family as often as possible. Research shows a positive connection between families who enjoy dinner together and girls who are confident, do well in school and have better relationships with their peers.

Stock healthy snacks.
Keep a variety of healthy snacks readily available. Store the snacks in a place where your young’uns can reach them, so that even the youngest can begin to make her own healthy choices about food. This helps girls learn to eat when their bodies tell them they are hungry, and not eat when they’re not.

Never use food to punish or reward.
Find ways other than eating to bond with your daughter. You can celebrate a victory without food — go for a walk together or sit down for tea, and let her know how proud you are of her. While it’s unrealistic to never eat to celebrate, it is possible to find other ways as well. Remember, you’re her first real role model.