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School meal standards may help students maintain weight

April 11, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • Strict lunch rules may help students maintain their weight, a study suggests. Above, First Lady Michelle Obama talks to Mississippi students at lunchtime this year.
Strict lunch rules may help students maintain their weight, a study suggests.… (Associated Press )

Researchers have found an association between stricter school meal standards and the weight of students, especially those from low-income families.

States that require more nutritious school lunches than the federal government mandated were compared with those that did not, looking at 4,870 eighth-graders in 40 states. And, the researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. Pediatrics that students didn’t compensate for the stricter standards by buying chips, cookies or other snacks elsewhere at school.

The study authors caution that their work does not prove that stricter standards caused better weight status, and they called for additional research. But they wrote that “ongoing changes to school meal standards have the potential to reduce obesity, particularly among students who are eligible for free/reduced price lunches.”

This study and others “have profound implications” for federal nutrition policies, Marion Nestle said in an accompanying editorial. Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and an author, has been a persistent advocate for better school food.

In her editorial, she criticizes opposition to stricter standards, saying such objections “must be recognized for what they do: place the financial health of food companies and their supporters in Congress above the health of the nation’s children.”

Nearly 32 million children eat under the National School Lunch Program each school day, and there has been plenty of criticism of the quality of those meals, with some studies suggesting an association with obesity risk, wrote Daniel Taber of the Health Policy Center, with colleagues from there and the University of Chicago.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released revised school meal guidelines in January 2012, requiring more produce and whole grains and limits on calories, among other measures. The researchers compared the guidelines prior to these with those in states that exceeded them.

They also surveyed students and parents. The researchers  compensated for factors including that students in states that exceeded the federal guidelines were more likely to have lower incomes and higher rates of obesity.

The difference in obesity prevalence among students who got free or reduced price meals and students who did not eat school lunch was 12 percentage points smaller in states that exceeded the USDA standards than in those states that did not, the researchers said.

Foods from vending machines or student stores, known as “competitive” foods because they may compete with cafeteria food, have also come under government scrutiny. And this week was the close of a public comment period about new rules limiting salt, fat and sugar in those foods.

@mmacvean on Twitter

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