ATLANTA — Middle school children who regularly eat school lunches are more likely to be overweight or obese, develop poorer eating habits and have high levels of “bad” cholesterol compared to those who bring lunches from home, according to new University of Michigan Health System research presented today at the American Collegeof Cardiology’s 59th annual scientific session.
Although previous studies have looked at the nutritional content of school lunches, this is the first study to assess the impact of school lunches on children’s eating behaviors and overall health—a critical issue amid skyrocketing rates of childhood overweight and obesity, which can set the stage for future heart disease and premature death.
A team of U-M Cardiovascular Center researchers collected and analyzed health behavior questionnaires completed by 1,297 sixth graders at Michigan public schools over a period of almost three years. They discovered that children who consume school lunches were more likely to be overweight or obese (38.8 percent vs. 24.4 percent) than those who ate lunches brought from home. Children who ate school meals were more than twice as likely to consume fatty meats (25.8 percent vs. 11.4 percent) and sugary drinks (36 percent vs. 14.5 percent), while also eating fewer fruits and vegetables (16.3 percent vs. 91.2 percent).
Researchers also found these children had higher levels of low-density lipid cholesterol (or “bad cholesterol”) than their home-fed counterparts. Students reported on what they consumed throughout the day—not just at lunchtime.
“This study confirms the current and escalating national concern with children’s health, and underscores the need to educate children about how to make healthy eating and lifestyle choices early on,” says Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of internal medicine at the U-M Health System. “Although this study doesn’t provide specific information on nutrient content of school lunches, it suggests there is a real opportunity to promote healthy behaviors and eating habits within the school environment. This is where kids spend a majority of their time.”
In addition to gathering information on dietary habits, researchers looked at sixth graders’ self reports of physical activity, involvement in sports, and sedentary behaviors such as watching TV or playing video games. They also collected information on student weight, height as well as blood glucose and cholesterol levels.
“Good heart health starts at a very young age,” Jackson says. “School-based initiatives like Project Healthy Schools can really make a difference in promoting healthy eating choices throughout the day.”
Project Healthy Schools is designed to teach sixth grade students about heart-healthy lifestyles, with hopes of reducing their future risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and is supported by a broad community partnership.
While the findings from the present study are concerning, Jackson says she is encouraged because there is more awareness among parents and children about their heart health than ever before. She reinforces the need to consistently integrate small steps to support heart health—for example, holding farm fresh food days during which students learn about fresh produce, walking to school and health education about healthy food choices.
There are other, potentially confounding issues that Jackson and her team are teasing out, including whether there is a possible correlation between socioeconomic status and heart health in children of low-income families who take advantage of free school meal programs.
Recent data show that while an estimated 30.6 million U.S. students consume school lunches, only 6 percent of school lunch programs meet the requirements established by the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children. Additionally, children who bring meals from home are also exposed to competing foods from school cafeterias, vending machines and trading with other students.
“As a parent, you’re not completely sure what you’re packing in their lunches is what they are actually consuming; foods can be traded or they can get snacks from vending machines, so it can be hard to know what they are putting into their bodies,” Jackson says, adding that parents can help shape food choices by modeling good eating behaviors at home and on the go.
Researchers state that more research is needed to better understand whether healthier school lunches will lead to healthier behaviors among school-aged children.
This study was funded, in part, by the Universityof Michigan, the Atkins Foundation and the Thompson Foundation, among others.
Press release courtesy of the American College of Cardiology.
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