Offering Healthier Food Choices at Special Olympics Events

Obesity is an issue of great importance, not only in the United States, but around the world.

Volunteers in Athens, Greece counsel an athlete on proper nutrition during the 2010 test Games. Volunteers there also offered healthier snack alternatives -- fruit and bottled water -- to athletes.

Obesity is an issue of great importance, not only in the United States, but around the world. The epidemic is receiving more and more attention from policymakers, the media and public health professionals. People with disabilities in the United States have an obesity rate that is 27.4% higher that people without disabilities and Special Olympics research has found that 33% of athletes 21 and under and a BMI percentile over 30, and 46% of athletes over 21 have a BMI of over 30. 

Although athletes don’t typically spend a great amount of time at Special Olympics’ events, it is an ideal place to begin promotion of healthy food selections. Serving healthy foods and beverages at events is a perfect way to introduce them to a healthier lifestyle.

As a public health student from the University of Iowa in the United States, I was interested in finding out what foods are offered at Special Olympics’ events. Are policies and food standards already being implemented at events?  I distributed a national U.S. survey to State Special Olympics Healthy Athletes directors and staff.

Out of 98 people invited to take the survey, 41 accepted for a response rate of 42%. Most were Healthy Athletes Coordinators (13), directors (12), and administrators (10). A majority of Programs (80%) rely on a combination of food and beverage donations and purchases by the Programs. In total, 28 respondents (68%) said their state’s Program serves “healthy” main options for their meals (sub sandwiches with lean meat), while others offer “less healthy” options like pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers. A wide variety of side dishes are offered, the most popular being fruit (83%) and regular chips (66%). Several Programs report switching to serving baked rather than fried chips (32%). Other side options perceived as “healthier” were granola bars, vegetables, and yogurt. Most Programs (97%) offer water at their events but 34% still offer sweetened beverages such as regular soda. The survey results suggest that the concessions at events tend to serve the majority of higher-calorie, lower-nutrient foods, including items such as sweetened beverages, hot dogs, pizza, chips and candy.

Most survey participants were aware that Special Olympic athletes are more obese. A total of 19 said Special Olympic athletes have higher or significantly higher in obesity rates than the general population. All but two surveyed indicated it was important or very important to decrease the current obesity rate in this population.

As noted earlier, some changes to make the foods healthier have been made. To date, 29 people have discussed the nutritional quality of the foods they serve. Athletes, coaches, families, vendors and sponsors have all contributed to the improvements in the food environment at events. The most significant barrier to serving healthy foods is the lack of funding. Four states reported having guidelines for foods and beverages served at Special Olympics events. The guidelines address portion size, not serving sweetened beverages, replacing calorie rich deserts with fruit, and using baked chips instead of fried.

A majority of respondents (54%) believe Special Olympics need guidelines (nutrition standards) for the foods served at events. Some suggestions included portion sizes, following recommendations in the Food Guide Pyramid, offering “balanced” meals, healthier snack choices and most importantly finding affordable healthy options. A lot of respondents indicated a desire for donors to provide healthier options. Almost half are considering other donors in their areas.

As you can see, many staff members in state Special Olympics Programs are interested in making changes to offer healthier foods and beverages at events. Funding restrictions limit the ability of some states due to the increased cost of healthy foods. Recommendations for affordable healthy food and beverage options were provided to respondents. This is one of the important steps in the journey to achieve healthy weights for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Join the conversation –share your stories and tips on how to offer healthier foods at Special Olympics on the Healthy Athletes Facebook page.    

Kristi Onken is currently a Master of Public Health student at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, IA and an Iowa's Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (ILEND) Project trainee through the Center for Disabilities and Development in Iowa City.