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Clocktower. Thursday 7 November 2013 3:25pm

New Zealand sport is “awash with junk food” according to researchers from the University of Otago, Wellington (UOW).

The wide availability and promotion of junk food in sport undermines the sport sector's efforts to promote healthy eating to players and is at odds with the healthy nature of sport, says Associate Professor Louise Signal, lead researcher on the project. Common foods include lollies, chips, burgers and sugary drinks.

Associate Professor Louise Signal

“There is still room for treats in our lives, but given the alarmingly high rates of overweight and obesity among our children, the saturation of junk food in sport needs to be examined,” Signal says.

There are opportunities to enhance food environments in almost all sports settings, the research team concludes, such as healthy food policies, support to coaches and managers and restrictions on marketing of junk food to children.

According to UOW's Dr Moira Smith, whose PhD explores the perceptions of children and parents about food in sport, many parents believe children's sport would not be sustainable without food and drink sponsorship. In fact, food and drink sponsors likely only contribute small amounts of funding to children's sport.

“Often benefits are in kind, such as player of the day vouchers which promote unhealthy food to children. There is a funding fallacy about junk food and sport in New Zealand,” Dr Smith says.

UOW nutritionist and researcher Mary-Ann Carter notes that 11% of New Zealand children aged 5-14 are obese, up from 8% in 2006/7, and at least 20% are overweight.
“The consumption of junk food is a significant contributor to this problem,” Carter says.

“There is good evidence that marketing of junk food influences children's food preferences, purchase and consumption. Obesity is associated with a range of health problems including type 2 diabetes in children, and heart disease, diabetes and cancer in later life.”

The research by the Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit at UOW follows on from earlier work which found unhealthy food and drink companies sponsor popular, televised sports in New Zealand. McDonalds and Coke are the greatest product sponsors, as they were at the London Olympics.

Such sponsorship promotes consumption of junk food and undermines recommendations promoting healthy eating, Signal says. She notes that rugby has the most unhealthy sponsorship by far, although they also have a healthy sponsorship of Weetbix which is positive.

Sponsors were classified as healthy or unhealthy using the New Zealand Food and Beverage Classification System nutrient criteria for energy, fat, sodium and fibre levels.
According to Dr Smith, children associated a wide range of sugary drinks with sport, particularly sports and fruit drinks. An analysis of the drinks showed they were often high in sugar – up to 19 teaspoons per bottle in one case – high in sodium, and had sufficient acidity to dissolve teeth.

“These drinks provide empty calories and are not necessary for children playing Saturday morning sport. Water, also commonly associated with sport, is a much better alternative,” she says.

Junk food also dominates sport in Australia, according to visiting nutritionist Dr Bridget Kelly. Dr Kelly is a keynote speaker at workshops on Food in Sport being held in Wellington and Auckland this Thursday and Friday with sports administrators, coaches, caterers, teachers and others interested in food in sport.

Australia leads New Zealand in efforts to promote healthy eating in sport including food policies for sports clubs, junk food sponsorship replacement and comprehensive health promotion initiatives.

The research is funded by the Health Research Council.

For further information, contact

Associate Professor Louise Signal
Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit
University of Otago, Wellington

Mary-Ann Carter
Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit
University of Otago, Wellington

Dr Moira Smith
Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit
University of Otago, Wellington

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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