If you stay abreast of the school nutrition legislature, you are aware that the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and its school nutrition policies have been in the hot seat lately. Even Mrs. Obama has asserted herself in the political mix, asking Congress to stay the course on school nutrition, sticking with changes that have improved the offerings to children and teens, including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting the unhealthy influences like soda and sweets.
But, teens are complaining that there isn't enough food to satisfy them. Secondly, they throw away food because they don't like it, particularly fruit and vegetables.
The "teen athletes don't get enough food" angle has been one argument in support of further reform to school lunch, which would loosen the mandates on serving healthy food.
I support adequate calories and tasty, nutritious food for athletes. But, I'm here to provide a reality check: one meal at school will not make or break an athlete.
The truth is, the whole day, and the days leading up to any competition or workout, determine whether or not an athlete's diet is sufficient, and even beneficial to his athletic performance.
For example, if an athlete skips breakfast, which 10 to 30% of all children and teens do, then no school lunch is going to cover the absence of those calories and nutrients, nor should it be expected to. The teen athlete breakfast skipper will always be hungrier at lunch and faced with having to catch up. That's not the school's problem.
If an athlete eats fatty hamburgers and fries or other less than healthy and nutritious food on the way home from sports practice, it is unlikely that a school lunch will save the day and correct her nutrition infractions. The teen athlete fast food frequenter will most likely be getting too many calories and not enough nutrients. Not a school problem.
And, if snacking reflects typical norms (83% of teens snack on a given day), including nutrient-poor items (snacks contribute 23% of total calories and a third of total sugar intake), then the teen athlete may be at a nutrient disadvantage. Again, this isn't a problem for the school lunch program to solve.
School lunch is supposed to be a nutrient-rich addition to an already healthy diet. It isn't supposed to be the anchor of the young athlete's diet, or the corrector of nutritional misses. It's supposed to provide about 30% of a teen's nutritional requirements (about 700-800 calories) with as much nutrition packed into it as possible.
The athlete makes up his extra calorie needs related to sport through pre-exercise and post-recovery snacks. Most teen athletes need about 400-500 extra calories to cover their activity, which is easily achieved with well planned meals at home and nutritious snacks.
My advice to parents, legislators and coaches: if teens complain about not enough food or the types of food at school, then it's time to take a look at the teen athlete's overal diet and eating habits.
Perhaps that's where the reform should be targeted.
National Alliance for Youth Sports, Inc
2050 Vista Parkway
West Palm Beach, Florida 33411
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