Study tips Healthier school lunches can reduce obesity

A 2010 federal law that improved nutritional standards for school meals may have started to slow the rise of obesity among America’s children — even teenagers who can buy their own snacks, a new study shows. .

​​​​The national study found a small but significant decrease in the average body mass index of more than 14,000 school children aged 5 to 18 whose height and weight were tracked before and after the Implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Children Act of 2010.

The study is new evidence that improving the quality of school meals through legislation could be one way to help change the trajectory of childhood obesity, which has been on the rise for years and now affects around 1 out of every 5 US children. It is not yet clear whether the program has started to turn the tide for the whole country, and not just for the groups of children studied. About 30 million children in the US receive school lunches every day.

“You have the potential to really affect their excessive weight gain throughout their childhood,” said Dr. Aruna Chandran, a social epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She led the study published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, promoted by former first lady Michelle Obama, was the first national legislation to improve school meals in more than 20 years. It increased the amount of fruit, vegetables and whole grains required for school meals.

The new study analyzed national data from 50 cohorts of school children from January 2005 to August 2016, before the law came into force, and data from September 2016 to March 2020, after it was fully implemented. The researchers calculated the children’s body mass index, a ratio of weight to height.

It found that the body mass index for children, adjusted for age and gender, decreased by 0.041 units per year compared to before the law came into effect. That’s about a quarter of one BMI unit per year, Chandran said. There was also a slight decrease in children who were overweight or obese, the study showed.

One way to think about the change is that a 1-pound weight loss would affect a 10-year-old boy with an elevated body mass index, Dr. Lauren Fiechtner, director of nutrition at MassGeneral Hospital do. Children in Boston, wrote an editorial accompanying the study.

“This is important because even the spread of BMI over time is probably important,” she said. Keeping children’s weight stable as they grow can keep obesity under control.

Previous studies have shown weight-related effects of the federal law among children from low-income families. The new study is the first to find a lower BMI in children across all income levels.

At the same time, significant reductions in BMI measures were seen, not only in children between 5 and 11 years of age, but also among children between 12 and 18 years of age.

“That’s an incredible change,” Chandran said. “These are kids who could have their own independence to buy their own snacks.”

The new findings come within days of the release of updated standards for school meals, which include the first limits on added sugars, reduced sodium and increased flexibility for whole grains. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the study shows that healthy school meals are “critical to combating diet-related conditions like obesity.”

But some researchers cautioned against over-interpreting the study’s findings. Some of the children included in the study may not have been enrolled in school meal programs, or their district may not have fully implemented the nutrition requirements, said Kendrin Sonneville, associate professor of nutrition sciences at the School of Health University of Michigan Public.

Importantly, measures like BMI, even when adjusted for children, “should not be used as a proxy for health,” she said.

A slight reduction in those measures, she said, “doesn’t tell us whether the health, well-being, food security concerns of children participating in the school breakfast or lunch program have improved.”

The Associated Press Health and Science Section is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science and Media Education Group. The AP is solely responsible for all matters.

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