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Children, School Lunches and Heart Disease

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Heart Disease related image Photo: Getty Images

For the first time in 15 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new guidelines for school lunches. The new rules, which were released to the public on January 25, 2012, have been hailed by the American Heart Association, or AHA, as a “huge win” for children’s health.

Nancy Brown, AHA CEO, issued a statement indicating that the new guidelines will play a “critical role in helping young Americans maintain a healthy weight, and ensure that their lives are free of heart disease and stroke.” (AHA 1)

Obesity is one of the risk factors for heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of all children in the United States are obese. That’s approximately one in five and the trend does not appear to be reversing. Many more children are also overweight.

Approximately 32 million children in the United States participate in the school lunch or breakfast program. The new guidelines are designed to reflect the newest nutrition information.

Beginning in the fall of 2012, parents can expect to see an increase in whole grain foods, fat-free or low-fat milk products only, lower calorie meals, an increase in fruits and vegetables, the limitation of saturated and trans fats and the lowering of sodium amounts.

By improving nutrition in the school setting, proponents hope that the new food choices will help children maintain a healthy weight and promote general good health.

The new guidelines are not perfect. Schools will still be able to offer some junk food favorites such as pizza, and some argue that sodium guidelines still have room for improvement. Also, it’s important to note that children play a role in their food choices when they aren’t with you and need to therefore be educated and encouraged to make healthy choices.

One mother I spoke to indicated that at her daughter’s school, they have a salad buffet and other items that students may purchase in addition to the basic lunch. Unfortunately, the salad buffet also included bread sticks, puddings, pizza and ice cream.

Fortunately, this school district provided an online forum where parents could check to not only see how much money their child spent on lunch each day, but exactly what food items were purchased. As a result, the mother was able to take corrective action and help her daughter understand which food choices were acceptable.

While it may seem unnatural to think of children and heart disease, the reality is that as obesity rates in children increase, conditions which were previously thought of as belonging specifically to the adult world are now impacting children’s health.

As a result of obesity, many children now exhibit multiple risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, sleep apnea, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and glucose intolerance.

Obesity is an independent risk factor for heart disease. The majority of obese children -- 70 percent -- have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Almost 40 percent have two or more heart disease risk factors. In addition, children who are obese are more likely to become obese adults with such obesity contributing to potentially serious health conditions.

By educating children on the importance of healthy eating habits, it may be possible to reverse the obesity trend in children and not only improve their health now, but in the future as well. Talk to your children about heart-healthy food choices and ensure that they get enough daily physical activity.

Side Bar:
If you’re interested in learning more about what changes to expect in school lunch requirements, visit the following for more information: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Governance/Legislation/comparison.pdf/

Could your child be obese? Obesity in children is measured differently than in adults because body composition varies by age and sex.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Growth Chart indicates the recommended weight guidelines by age and sex. In general, children who are between 85 and 95 percent on the Growth Chart are overweight and children above the 95th percentile are considered obese.

For more information visit: http://www.cdc.gov/growthcharts/cdc_charts.htm/


American Heart Association Says USDA Nutrition Standards Mean Better Health for the Nation’s Children. American Heart Association. 25 Jan 2012. http://newsroom.heart.org/pr/aha/american-heart-association-says-225788.aspx

U.S. Obesity Trends. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 21 Jul 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.HTML

Basics About Childhood Obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 26 April 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/basics.html

Nutrition Standards for School Meals. US Department of Agriculture. 02 Feb 2012. http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Governance/Legislation/nutritionstandards.htm

USDA Unveils Historic Improvements to Meals Served in America’s Schools. US Department of Agriculture. http://www.fns.usda.gov/cga/PressReleases/2012/0023.htm

Reviewed February 2, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jessica Obert

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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