U.S. School Meals Would Be Healthier if Compliant With American Nutrition Standards

Evaluation of Health and Economic Effects of United States School Meal Standards Consistent With the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Author: Tufts University
Published: 2023/07/31 - Updated: 2023/08/04
Publication Type: Study - Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Contents: Summary - Main - Related Publications

Synopsis: Researchers report that aligning student meals to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans would further support children's well-being and cut healthcare costs into adulthood. The study's findings, which cannot prove the outcomes they describe but are derived from a mathematical model based on the best available demographic and health data, are timely given the United States Department of Agriculture's recent commitment to updating the school meal nutrition standards to align with the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines. If all schools fully complied with the new standards, these were estimated to prevent more than 10,600 deaths per year due to fewer diet-related diseases, saving over $19 billion annually in healthcare-related costs during later adulthood.

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"Evaluation of Health and Economic Effects of United States School Meal Standards Consistent With the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans" by American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Today's school meals are much healthier than they were for the parents of American kids, but still 1 in 4 school meals are of poor nutritional quality. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), in place for 2020-25, call for meals with less sugar and salt and with more whole grains.

Fully synchronizing school meals with these new standards could positively impact hundreds of thousands of children into their adulthood, with the added benefit of saving billions in lifetime medical costs, investigators from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University report July 31 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. By modeling the national implementation of updated school lunch guidelines, the research team found even incomplete compliance by schools would lead to overall reductions in short- and long-term health issues for participating K-12 students.

"On average, school meals are healthier than the food American children consume from any other source including at home, but we're at a critical time to further strengthen their nutrition," says senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School. "Our findings suggest a real positive impact on long-term health and healthcare costs with even modest updates to the current school meal nutrition standards."

The researchers utilized a simulation model to derive a data-driven estimate of three changes to the school meal program, including limiting percent of energy from added sugar to lower than 10% of total energy per meal, requiring all grain foods to be whole grain, and lowering sodium content to the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction amount for sodium intake in the 2020-2025 DGA. A portion (35%) of these dietary changes were estimated to continue into adulthood.

If all schools fully complied with the new standards, these were estimated to prevent more than 10,600 deaths per year due to fewer diet-related diseases, saving over $19 billion annually in healthcare-related costs during later adulthood. The worst-case estimate, in which schools remained with their current food offerings, saved a little over half as many lives and healthcare dollars.

School meals aligning to new dietary guidelines for added sugars, sodium, and whole grains would have modest, but important, short-term health benefits for children. For example, these changes were estimated to reduce elementary and middle school students' body mass index (BMI) by 0.14 and systolic blood pressure by 0.13 mm Hg. Benefits were about half as large for high school students because fewer older students eat school-provided meals.

"Using a comparative risk assessment model, our estimations are based on the best available, nationally representative data on children and adults and the best available evidence on how dietary changes in childhood relate to BMI and blood pressure, how dietary changes persist into adulthood, and how diet influences disease in adulthood," says first author Lu Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School. "Our new results indicate that even small changes to strengthen school nutrition policies can help students live longer, healthier lives."

The study's findings, which cannot prove the outcomes they describe but are derived from a mathematical model based on the best available demographic and health data, are timely given the United States Department of Agriculture's recent commitment to updating the school meal nutrition standards to align with the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines. The price to fully implement new school meal standards is yet to be determined, but previous alignments suggest it would add at least another $1 billion nationally to the cost of these programs, or only about 5 percent of the total predicted annual long-term healthcare savings this change would yield.

Research reported in this article was supported by an award from the National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (R01HL115189) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Complete information on authors, funders, methodology, and conflicts of interest is available in the published paper. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funders.

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This peer reviewed publication pertaining to our Childhood Obesity section was selected for circulation by the editors of Disabled World due to its likely interest to our disability community readers. Though the content may have been edited for style, clarity, or length, the article "U.S. School Meals Would Be Healthier if Compliant With American Nutrition Standards" was originally written by Tufts University, and submitted for publishing on 2023/07/31 (Edit Update: 2023/08/04). Should you require further information or clarification, Tufts University can be contacted at the tufts.edu website. Disabled World makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith.

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