Children’s diets improve outside the schoolhouse when their schools adopt healthy nutrition policies and practices that emphasize whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
According to new research published in the current issue of Childhood Obesity, when schools made snacks available that were mostly or entirely healthful, students’ overall diet improved.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will ask schools to implement its Smart Snacks nutrition standards on July 1, 2014. Those recommendations will set limits on calories, salt, sugar and fat in foods and beverages, as well as promote snack foods with more whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables.
In the study, team of researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) tested standards similar to the USDA’s new requirements and demonstrated the new standards have the potential to improve students’ overall eating habits.
For example, schools that offered healthful snacks a la carte at lunchtime or in vending programs boosted their students’ overall daily consumption of fruit by 26 percent, vegetables by 14 percent and whole grains by 30 percent. Students also increased their consumption of fiber, calcium, and vitamins A and C.
“When healthful food options are offered, students will select them, eat them and improve their diet,” said lead researcher Katherine Alaimo, MSU associate professor of food, science and human nutrition. “Our study shows that schools can make the kinds of changes required by the forthcoming USDA guidelines and these changes can have a positive impact on children’s nutrition.”
The researchers also compared schools that adopted a variety of nutrition programs and policies. Some schools made limited changes, while others implemented more comprehensive programs to assess and improve the school’s nutrition environment.
Changes schools made included raising nutrition standards for snacks and beverages, offering taste tests of healthful foods and beverages to students, marketing healthful foods in school and removing advertisements of unhealthful foods. Students’ overall diets improved when schools implemented three or more new nutrition practices or policies.
“Creating school environments where the healthy choice is the easy choice allows students to practice lessons learned in the classroom and form good habits at an early age, laying a foundation for a healthy future,” said Shannon Carney Oleksyk, contributing author and healthy living adviser for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.