At Balanced, our central ask of school districts is that they enrich their menus by adding nutrient-dense plant-based proteins and produce in place of the standard (typically processed) animal source proteins and other less healthy items. Ideally, we’d like to see a 15 to 20 percent shift in this direction. Pretty reasonable, wouldn’t you say? It might even appear so simplistic that it’s hard to believe a change that subtle could possibly make kids’ diets demonstrably healthier.
For a school offering 25 conventional lunch entrées a week, meeting our 20 percent target would require replacing four or five of those with a plant protein-based option. From the student perspective, let’s imagine that a 20 percent change leads to the replacement of just one conventional lunch per week with a plant-rich alternative.
One meal doesn’t seems very significant, so how much can a 20 percent shift toward plant-rich entrées really affect a student’s nutrient intakes over a week?
To answer this question our team dug into some real-life breakfast and lunch menus being served in an actual high school. To ensure our analysis was realistic and fair, we were careful to select complete, reimbursable meals for one week as determined by FNS standards and guidelines. We then used the nutrition facts information provided by the food service department to calculate average daily nutrient intakes. Table 1 shows those values for each day and meal.
Next, we replaced the least healthy lunch entrée of the week, bacon cheeseburger nachos, with a plant protein entrée, a veggie hummus wrap. The nachos were included as part of Tuesday lunch, highlighted in yellow in Table 1. The nutrient content of Tuesday’s lunch with the veggie wrap and without the nachos is given in Table 2.
Let’s compare the two Tuesday lunch entrées. (Table 3)
Excluding other lunch components, the nachos alone contained 45 grams of fat, 13 of which came from saturated fat. That’s almost an entire day’s limit for saturated fat in just one entrée.
The nachos alone also contained 127 milligrams of cholesterol, 60 percent more cholesterol than a Big Mac!
The sodium content of the nachos, 1412 milligrams, almost reaches the American Heart Association’s recommended daily limit of 1500 milligrams for individuals at risk of heart disease, and with the other lunch components’ sodium content added, the entire meal exceeds this limit. Sadly, many high schoolers already are at risk for heart disease, and it is because they are being served these kinds of meals day after day. Lastly, the nacho entrée contained a mere two grams of fiber.
Compared to the nachos, the veggie hummus wrap entrée contained 17 grams of total fat, only 3.7 of which were saturated. Because the wrap contains no animal products, the cholesterol is zero milligrams, and the sodium is just one-fourth that of the complete nacho lunch. Most impressively, the fiber content of the wrap is 13 times that of the nachos at a whopping 26.1 grams.
As shown in Table 2, thanks to this one simple plant-based swap, the daily average nutrient content over one week changed significantly and favorably. Average daily intakes of total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol each fell by approximately 15 percent. Average sodium intake fell ten percent, and average fiber intake increased by 40 percent.
This menu change, though seemingly small and simplistic, had a relatively large impact on the average nutrient intakes of a hypothetical student over one week. That is the transformative power of a 20 percent shift away from processed, heavy meals toward hearty, plant-rich meals.
In a similar nutrient analysis using a different high school’s breakfast and lunch menus, we replaced two conventional lunch entrées in one week with plant-based alternatives, which yielded the following changes in average daily nutrient intakes:
16% reduction in total fat
30% reduction in saturated fat
18% reduction in sodium
30% reduction in cholesterol
75% increase in dietary fiber
As expected, the benefits only deepen when we consume even more plant-forward and plant-based meals. But the benefits can only be derived when those options are actually on the menus in the institutions we rely on for food.
This is why we act with such urgency and drive to advocate for healthier, more balanced food environments on campuses where young palates develop, in hospitals where food has the potential to heal, and in our office buildings where we spend half of our waking hours.
While it may not seem like it in the short-term because diet-related disease and chronic illness develop over time, this is proof that every single meal matters. Help us show institutional food service teams in your area that a solution this simple and impactful is one worth making. Share this information with key decision makers, forward our food service tools to the right people, or lead a campaign where you live.
Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Balanced is a nonprofit organization providing the tools, resources, and supports for everyday people to advocate for healthier menus in their community institutions. Please support Balanced's mission with a donation of any size today.