If schools offer healthy foods, kids will eat them, study finds

When schools are able to increase the availability of nutritious lunch and snack options, kids will show healthier eating habits, according to new research from Michigan State University.

The study, led by Katherine Alaimo, associate professor of food, science and human nutrition at MSU, found that healthy vending machine options or a la carte lunchtime choices corresponded with improvements in kids' diets. The findings contradict the idea that kids who eat poorly at home will also have unhealthy habits during school hours.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will ask that schools implement its "Smart Snacks" nutrition standards on July 1, 2014. The changes will help schools to identify which foods should be more readily available, which foods should be limited, and how to target nutritional standards based on age group.

Promising outcomes

Alaimo and her colleagues tested nutrition standards that were similar to the USDA's new guidelines, finding that students who ate this way developed better eating habits overall: Consumption of fruit increased by 26 percent, vegetables by 14 percent and whole grains by 30 percent. Students also increased their fiber, calcium and vitamin consumption.

"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.

Small changes, big results

Specific changes that schools made in the study included raising the nutrition standards for snacks and beverages, offering taste tests of healthy foods to students and removing advertisements in schools for unhealthy foods. Schools that were able to implement just three changes in nutrition practice or policy were able to help improve their students' diets overall – not just how they ate while at school.

"When healthful food options are offered, students will select them, eat them and improve their diet," said Alaimo. "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."

Source: Michigan State University

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