THURSDAY, Jan. 13 (HealthDay News) -- Trying to fight the
growing child obesity epidemic, new federal guidelines proposed
Thursday focus on making school lunches healthier.
The new guidelines, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA), would be the first such changes in 15 years and include
cutting salt and fat and adding more fruits and vegetables to
school cafeteria fare.
"For the first time in a generation we are proposing significant improvements to the nutritional quality of the meals served to children across America," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters during a Thursday press conference.
He noted that about one-third of schoolchildren are obese.
"These children will consume a third to a half of their calories in
school and we can have a positive impact in improving the
nutritional quality of school meals," Vilsack said.
One nutrition expert agreed.
"Having healthier fare in the schools is a critical step in giving children the education and experience of healthy foods and reducing the risk of many chronic diseases and obesity," said Samantha Heller, a dietitian, nutritionist, exercise physiologist and clinical nutrition coordinator at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn.
The new guidelines also call for more whole grains and the use
of low- or nonfat milk. They would also limit the amount of starch
to one cup of starchy vegetables a week, so french fries wouldn't
be on the menu every day, according to the
The nation may have a financial incentive to boosting the health
of school meals, too. "If we do not get our hands around the
obesity epidemic, by 2018 we will face nearly $344 billion of
additional health care costs -- that's more than 21 percent of our
current health care spending," Vilsack said.
According to 2008 statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, nearly 17 percent of children and
adolescents 2 to 19 years old are obese.
The new school meal guidelines, which could affect more than 32
million children, are based on recommendations from a 2009 report
from the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of
The change in guidelines comes just weeks after President Barack
Obama signed the child nutrition bill, which will help schools pay
for the healthier foods, which can be more expensive.
Meals that would fall under the new guidelines are currently
provided free or at low cost to low-income children and are already
subject to government nutrition standards. Under the new law,
nutrition standards will be extended, for the first time, to foods
sold in schools that aren't government-subsidized. These include "a
la carte" foods on the lunch line and snacks sold in vending
At this point, the guidelines remain a proposal, and it could
take several years before schools are required to make changes, the
news service said.
Under the proposed new guidelines:
"These are the kinds of sensible changes in school nutrition that are welcome," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "I suspect, however, there will be some opposition from those who see here an attempt by government to 'dictate' the food choices of kids," he added.
Katz said he doesn't buy that argument. "Kids are a captive
audience in schools, and so whatever foods are made available will
influence the selections they make. In an age of epidemic childhood
obesity and rampant type 2 diabetes, along with a long list of
other potentially diet-related pediatric ills, how could we
possibly countenance influencing choices in the direction of lower
nutrition standards and greater health risk?" he said.
Heller agreed that the proposed changes are necessary.
"This will be a process, but the sooner we get our children on the road to healthy lifestyle behaviors, the better," Heller said. "Now we have to figure out ways to encourage parents to offer healthy choices at home."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more on
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