Kristi Spence MS, RD, CSSD
Recently revised school meal standards have raised eyebrows, spawned debate, and launched criticism. Should we have calorie limits? How do we balance a childhood obesity epidemic with kids who need extra fuel for sport? The new USDA guidelines are designed to align federally subsidized school meals with the latest installment of the dietary guidelines (released 2010). This makes sense. If the government provides nutritional standards for all Americans, then the breakfast and lunch programs they offer to students should mirror those standards. Here is quick run-down of the major changes:
- The new school meal regulations aim to boost fruit, vegetable, and whole grain consumption
- New meal offerings must reduce the total amount saturated fat and sodium
- Flavored milk must be fat-free and white milk must be low fat.
- While minimum calorie amounts were always part of school meals, the latest rule imposes acceptable maximum calorie levels as well. For high school students, the acceptable calorie range for a reimbursable school lunch is 750-850.
It is on this latter point that some student-athletes have raised concerns, suggesting that even the upper limit isn’t enough to get them through an afternoon practice or competition. It is absolutely true that athletes have greater calorie needs than their non-athletic counterparts. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines estimate that active 18-year old males require an average of 3,200 calories per day, while active 18-year old females require 2,400 calories per day compared respectively to 2,400 and 1,800 for non-active males and females. These are averages. Given the intensity of some high school sports, the elite level at which some students participate, and variations in personal size and metabolic needs, these estimates may be low. However, even the most active teen can properly fuel for intense training on an 850-calorie lunch. Part of the solution involves eating everything that is offered. Research has shown that since the new guidelines have been adopted, plate waste is up, indicating that more kids are choosing to forego what is on their tray.
In working with elite high school and adult athletes, I often recommend 3 meals plus 3 snacks during the day in order to properly fuel for intense training and competition. An afternoon meal that is too large may not sit well for an athlete trying to workout in the afternoon. For this reason, eating a larger breakfast and incorporating a substantial mid-morning snack is a must. Even under the previous school meal guidelines, I would always recommend that high school athletes come to school prepared with snacks. Popping a box of granola bars, a bag of pretzels, or a sports bar in your locker or gym bag is just good practice and offers a source of additional, quickly absorbed and easily digested fuel prior to training or competition. The new meal guidelines allow for unlimited fruits and vegetables, even at levels beyond the 850-calorie limit, so if an athlete has finished his lunch, he can always head back up to the lunch line for an extra serving of fruit or vegetables. Many schools also have a la carte lines where students can purchase additional food.
The new school meal guidelines are just that – new. It always takes time to adjust to change, work out the kinks, and adapt to new meal patterns. The conversation this has sparked is a good one. Improving school lunch, coming up with suggestions and encouraging kids to adopt a healthier palate is an important step in creating a healthier generation and it takes collaboration. As a sport dietitian, I am thrilled that high school athletes now have access to more nutrient-dense foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat dairy.
The secret to athletic success has not changed: performing well and maximizing athletic potential takes training on and off the field, and nutrition is a key component in that equation. Even an athlete with calorie needs nearing 5,000 per day can fuel adequately with an 850-calorie lunch. Learning to plan, prepare, adapt, and fuel is part of becoming a successful athlete – it starts in high school.
Below are tips for meeting calorie needs and maximizing performance for high school athletes:
- Eat Breakfast – breakfast gets your metabolism going and sets the stage for a successful day (both in training and in the classroom). Athletes who don’t eat breakfast have a difficult time meeting their energy needs.
- Bring a mid-morning snack – to meet their needs, athletes often need to incorporate snacks throughout the day. Here are some easy things to bring from home:
- Yogurt or cheese stick & fruit
- PB&J sandwich
- Granola bar & fruit
- Grab an extra piece / cup of fruit from the lunch line – the addition of these nutrient dense calories can help provide extra carbohydrate (muscle fuel) for an afternoon training session
- Stash some snacks in your gym bag or locker for before or after practice/competition.
- Refuel after training
Kristi Spence is a registered dietitian and certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Kristi is the VP of Communications for the Dairy Council of Utah/Nevada. She loves spending time with her family, cooking, running, hiking, and connecting people with farmers. Check out www.thecowlocale.com and follow Kristi on Twitter @Kristiruns & @DairyUTNV.