Manta Ray Partners

A Resolution to Make the Healthy Choice, the Easy Choice

By Jill Castle, Registered Dietitian and Child Nutrition Expert 

Parents and coaches are powerful role models in the lives of children. Young, impressionable eyes are watching every nutrition move. While this is a lot of responsibility (and pressure!), it goes with the territory.

Many parents and coaches believe that telling swimmers what to eat, rather than showing them through their daily food choices and eating habits, is the best way to improve nutrition and eating.

It’s not.

The cliché, ‘actions speak louder than words’ is true, particularly when it comes to kids and teens, food choices and eating habits. Numerous studies show that parents are the No. 1 influence over their child’s eating and whether they turn out to be healthy eaters or not. After that, friends, community (including coaches), and media are close behind.

The following are some examples of nutrition actions that swimmers are exposed to around the pool. Which ones convey the message you want them to hear? 

  • The coach who carries a can of soda on deck versus the coach who carries around a water bottle. 
  • The coach who eats a well-balanced lunch in the hospitality room versus the coach who grabs a candy bar for a quick ‘pick-me-up’. 
  • The parent who sits in the stands with a large soda from the local convenience store versus the parent who packs a nutritious cooler of food and drink for the family at swim meets.

Swimmers watch and learn about the world based on their developmental stage. School-age swimmers think concretely. They process things in a black-and-white or right-or-wrong way. Teens are emerging from this concrete thinking into abstract, consequence-oriented thinking. Meanwhile, teens are also becoming more independent and willing to take risks, even with nutrition. Depending on the developmental stage, the swimmer can learn, ‘what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander,’ or be given a license to experiment with less than healthy nutrition.

Are you a terrible parent if your swimmer chooses a candy bar at the concession stand? An awful coach if your swimmers are chomping Skittles at every meet? No, of course not. On any given day, there can be a set of circumstances that make those actions acceptable. However, in order to cultivate a swim culture of healthy eating, we have to create an environment that encourages success with healthy eating.

Take the concession stand, for instance. While more and more swim teams are savvy about healthy options, the truth is that double chocolate muffins, donuts, candy and soda get sold alongside the fruit cups, veggie/dip combos, and the yogurt parfaits. Swimmers, when presented with this range of options, often go for sweets, or salty and fatty snacks, instead of the healthy fare.

Kids are drawn to these foods—their taste buds are hard-wired to enjoy sweets, salt and fat. It can take a childhood to cultivate a palate that accepts and enjoys all foods. When we place sweets and fried foods next to fruit and vegetables, the healthier option often takes second place.

The hospitality room, which is usually intended for coaching staff and referees, can be another example of less than desirable food items. Hospitality items run the gamut from yogurt parfaits and oatmeal to candy bowls, chips and pizzas. The truth is, even adults have a hard time making the healthy choice when faced with so many temptations. If you’re an adult trying to maintain or manage a healthy weight or simply eat healthy for your livelihood, an environment that supports poor eating habits almost never works toward success in these areas.

We make it harder on everyone to make the right choice when the food landscape is mottled with less than ideal food options.

So, as you ring in the New Year, I challenge you to look at the food culture and nutrition messages circulating around your team, your swimmer, and your poolside and home environments. Can you be better at modeling the nutrition outcomes you want to see in your swimmer? Can you make the healthy choice, the easy choice?

Jill Castle, MS, RD is a registered dietitian and child nutrition expert. She is the co-author of the upcoming book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (2013), and creator of Just The Right Byte, a child and family nutrition blog. She lives with her husband and four children (two swimmers!) in New Canaan, CT. Want to contact Jill? Email her at [email protected]