Baseball offers some of the best health benefits in the sports industry. Pitching, running, and catching can develop a player’s muscles, strengthen their cardiovascular system, and improve their mental concentration. A moderate dose of sunlight gives a boost in vitamin D. It’s no surprise then that in 2010 Michelle Obama teamed up with the Major League Baseball Players Association in a campaign to fight childhood obesity.

But for researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, it’s the food environment surrounding the baseball scene that must be examined. Looking at what players and their families were eating during 12 games at a baseball field in northwest North Carolina, the researchers found that high-calorie snacks and drinks dominate the youth baseball culture, with as much as 90 percent of food being purchased from concession stands. The food culture of youth baseball, the study suggests, is possibly contributing to weight problems.

Obesity affects over one-third of children in the U.S., and organized sport participation increased by 25 percent since 1997, according to the National Council of Youth Sports. Despite this increase, nearly half of obese children participate in organized sports and still remained obese. “Sports participation does not guarantee children are meeting activity recommendations, and food environments surrounding sports may promote snacking and consumption of high-calorie convenience foods,” the authors wrote in the study, published in Childhood Obesity.

“Though youth sports are an excellent way to promote physical activity, social interaction and positive health behaviors, the food environments are often characterized by less healthy food options with high calorie contents and lower nutrient density,” said senior author Joseph Skelton in a press release. While many experts suggest treating obesity means exercising more, not much research has looked at the impact of sports settings.

The foods that Skelton and his team saw the most around the field included French fries, candy, cookies, and sugar-sweetened beverages — all high-calorie food items that could counteract the health benefits of an active day in the sun. The study points to a problem in certain sports settings where kids are encouraged to stay active and fit while the foods that surround these scenes undercut those healthy notions simultaneously. According to study co-author Megan Irby, another issue is that games and practices occur up to two or three nights every week, making unhealthy concession-stand food highly accessible and easier to yield to. If a practice disrupts meal time, it may be easier to grab a hot dog and drink it down with a soda.

Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness believes the study sheds light on the importance of looking at how our environment shapes our health. “This is an example of one of the myriad of factors that fuel our obesity epidemics,” Kahan wrote in an email to Medical Daily. “Rather than lecture people to simply "eat less, exercise more", we must identify and address the many environments and behavioral settings that set the stage for unhealthful choices and poor health outcomes.”

The researchers suggest that local sports leagues or local communities should implement health policies regarding what snacks and drinks are made available at sporting events. For Scott Kahan, the key is not just to teach kids and parents to make healthy choices, but more importantly, we must make healthier choices more available and accessible.

“There are many strategies that we can, and do, teach to patients, parents, kids, etc on how to make healthier choices at venues like sports events and such,” Kahan told Medical Daily. “This is worthwhile, of course, but the bigger picture is that, in general, there are far, far more unhealthful choices than healthful options, and the unhealthful options tend to be the "default" choices, and they tend to be the cheaper option, and the more advertised and available option … and of course they are the tastier option! So the key here is that we need to work to shift these factors toward making the healthier choices easier and cheaper, and more available, and so forth.”

Kahan says the key underlying issue of the study is that the sports settings themselves are the root danger — and we must work to change that. “If it requires 100% vigilance and constant energy and attention to be figuring out what to eat, what not to eat, well it's like walking through a's only a matter of time before you get hurt.”

Source: Irby M, Drury-Brown M, Skelton J. The Food Environment of Youth Baseball. Childhood Obesity. 2014.