Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD - Revised School Nutrition Standards Proposed by USDA
January 27, 2011
The new proposed school nutrition standards are better: more fruit and vegetables, more whole grains, no trans fats and less sodium. These are exactly the kinds of changes that will allow kids at school to eat far more nutrient dense food. It is a great start.
EATING CLOSE TO THE EARTH
Encouraging people to eat close to the earth has been my rally cry for years. In the quest for more and cheaper food, the American food supply has compromised our health and distorted our senses. Our markets are filled with highly processed, adulterated calories. It is easy to eat excessive refined starch and sugar, with or without the fat. The wholesome goodness of food in it’s natural form is all but lost except along the perimeter of the store.
You will still find whole foods in the produce section, at the meat and fish counter and in the dairy section. You can find a few whole foods in the freezer section (think frozen vegetables and fruits), as well as the dry grain section. But most supermarkets sell added sugar, refined starch and fat at a premium. More than 75% of all food offerings in a typical grocery store doesn’t look like nor enjoy the nutrient density of the original product.
THE COST OF CONVENIENCE
The same mutant food forms have inundated school lunches, especially as schools shifted from foods cooked on site to prepackaged, precooked convenience over the last few decades. When my son was in elementary school, I would shudder at the gray meat patties between spheres of while refined dough. I winced at the globs of sweetened canned fruit, pudding, and fruit crumble that contributed to the mandated quota of vitamin C and calcium. I made my son’s lunch every day at home.
I celebrate more whole fruit and vegetables. I cheer more whole grains. It is a good thing to ban trans fat and reduce sodium. The new school nutrition standards are a significant start. But my bet is that it won’t be enough to stem the tide of obesity and overweight in our school children. The standards don’t say enough about the range of carbohydrate and protein in school lunch meals.
NOT ENOUGH ATTENTION TO PROTEIN
Fat content is limited between 25-35% of calories and trans fats are banned. Good. This is better than the previous 30% limit. Fat is important for an enduring sense of feeling satisfied.
But there is not enough attention to the role of protein and satiety. Certainly school lunches offer enough protein to meet RDA guidelines, but that is not the same as enough protein to feel satisfied. The RDA basically ensures enough protein for growth and development. Today we know adequate protein and fat in the diet, and less carbohydrate, helps many people metabolize fat more effectively. With a higher protein intake, these individuals are less likely to gain fat weight, and it is easier for them to lose weight as well.
Americans eat an average of 12-15% of calories from protein. If fat intake is between 25-35%, somewhere from 50-63% of calories will come from carbohydrate. Many of my clients gain fat weight when carbohydrate foods contributes more than 40-50% of their calorie intake.
The most popular school breakfast is cereal and milk. Over 80% of the calories typically come from carbohydrate. Adding juice to the meal only adds to the problem. Even when the carbohydrate is from whole foods, this amount is likely to be too much carbohydrate for some of the children.
DESTINED FOR DIABETES (if things don”t change)
There are many factors that make it easier to gain fat weight and increase one’s risk for developing diabetes. Certain ethnic groups are at a much higher risk of diabetes. Babies born premature, with low birth weight or with excessive fat stores are more at risk. Many of these babies are born to mothers with gestational diabetes, another risk factor.
Children who live with excessive stress or inadequate physical activity are at higher risk for becoming overweight and obese. Certain medications increase the risk. These are the kids that will likely gain fat weight when they eat too much carbohydrate.
OUR WORK IS NOT DONE
The landmark changes to the school lunch program are hard fought. Celebrate them. Champion and applaud the opportunity to feed our children more wholesome food. Children will be eating closer to the earth.
But we should not pretend it will be enough. Future efforts need to ensure enough protein and not too much carbohydrate at every meal. While it is more expensive to feed children enough protein, the benefits are great. Children will be able to metabolize energy more effectively. They will enjoy enduring energy and concentration through the day. They will reduce their risk of becoming overweight or developing diabetes. It doesn’t make sense for many of our kids to start the day with cereal and milk.