Longer lunches equal healthier choices for kids

Tuesday, 13 October, 2015

Food waste is a common issue in schools — whether it’s the healthy lunchbox that returns home untouched or the platefuls of food scraped into bins in cafeterias.

Parental frustrations aside, for a well-nourished child skipping a few lunches is unlikely to present a health problem. However, every day the USA’s National School Lunch Program provides free or discounted meals to over 30 million school students. For children from low-income households, these meals can account for almost half of their daily kilojoule intake.

Aiming to improve the selection and consumption of healthier school foods, the non-profit organisation Project Bread and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health collaborated on the MEALS study, a large, school-based randomised controlled trial.

The study found the answer could be as simple as giving children more time to eat. The research, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, revealed that school children who are given at least 25 minutes to eat lunch are more likely to choose fruits and consume more of their lunch, milk and vegetables.

Investigators found that when kids had less than 20 minutes of seated time in the cafeteria to eat lunch, they were significantly less likely to select a fruit when compared to peers who had at least 25 minutes to eat lunch (44% vs 57%, respectively). Furthermore, the study found that children with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13% less of their main course, 10% less of their milk and 12% less of their veggies when compared to students who had at least 25 minutes to eat their lunch. This indicates that kids who were given less time at lunch may be missing out on key components of a healthy diet such as fibre-rich whole grains and calcium.

“Policies that improve the school food environment can have important public health implications in addressing the growing socioeconomic disparities in the prevalence of obesity and in improving the overall nutrient quality of children’s diets,” explained lead investigator Juliana F W Cohen, ScD, ScM, Assistant Professor, Department of Health Sciences, Merrimack College, and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Nutrition, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “This research suggests that enabling students to have sufficient time to eat their meals can help address this important issue.”

With this research, investigators have shown that there is an association between the amount of time a student is given to eat and how much food they are likely to consume. A shorter lunch period means that children are in danger of missing out on important calories they rely on during the school day. In addition, studies have shown that consuming food too quickly is associated with a decrease in satiety, which can lead to overeating and contribute to obesity. Because of this, having insufficient time for lunch is especially precarious as kids are learning the eating habits they’ll take with them into adulthood.

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