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Time, Not Calories, May Leave High School Students Feeling Hungry

Students say smaller school lunches aren’t filling them up, but the calories may not be the issue.

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While many schools have already made improvements in their lunch menus and vending machine choices, others are still selling high-fat, high-calorie foods.
While many schools have already made improvements in their lunch menus and vending machine choices, others are still selling high-fat, high-calorie foods.

High school students are grumbling over their school lunches—and so are their stomachs.

Their complaints aren't about mystery meat or inedible entrees. Instead, students are staging brown-bag protests and filming YouTube videos to voice their frustrations over portion sizes.

New federal guidelines cap school lunches at 750 to 850 calories for high school students, down from the previous 825-calorie minimum requirement, and double the amount of fruits and vegetables teens get when they go through the cafeteria line.

[Learn more about the new school lunch guidelines.]

Teachers and students say the guidelines, which rolled out nationwide this school year, don't give students enough fuel to get through the school day, much less sports and after-school activities.

"I have been a teacher for 20 years, and this is the worst that it's ever been. Our kids eat at 12:06 p.m., and they are hungry by 1:30 p.m.," Linda O'Connor, an English teacher at Wallace County High School told U.S. News in September. A viral video created by students at the Kansas high school depicts student athletes pretended to collapse from hunger during volleyball practice.

But 850 calories is more than sufficient for a growing teenager, says Rebecca Mohning, a sports nutritionist and registered dietician. Mohning designs meal plans for athletes, including high school students, to ensure they are getting the appropriate balance of protein, vitamins, and carbohydrates.

"When I'm working on a nutrition plan [for a student athlete] … I don't end up writing a lunch for them that's over 850 calories," she says, adding that if an 850-calorie lunch is enough for a high school football or lacrosse player, it is more than sufficient for less active teens.

Skipping breakfast is more likely the cause of the midday hunger pangs teens are complaining about, Mohning says.

Rather than running out the door on an empty stomach, students should eat a protein-rich breakfast such as eggs or Greek yogurt, and then refuel throughout the day with a small snack such as trail mix, a protein bar or fruit, she adds. Many high schools also serve breakfast, which must be between 450 to 600 calories, according to the new federal guidelines.

[Read how parents influence teen's eating habits.]

Another thing preventing teens from feeling full from their school lunches is time. After waiting in the lunch line, many students only have 10 minutes to wolf down their meals before the bell rings for their next class. This speed eating keeps students from feeling satisfied after meals, Mohning says.

Many schools also stagger lunch times to get all of their students through the cafeteria, which means some students are eating lunch well before noon, she adds.

"Some students have to eat their lunch at 10:30 in the morning," Mohning says. "If lunch is at 10:30 and then practice is going to be at 3:30 or 4:00, how are you going to have any energy and not be just ravenous by then?"

Have something of interest to share? Send your news to us at highschoolnotes@usnews.com.