Pediatricians support the new standards and portion sizes because they are grounded in science and help provide healthy food options for our children when they are away from home. Across the United States, more than 23 million children and adolescents –one in three—are obese or overweight, and the numbers are growing. Excess weight harms the physical health of children and teenagers as well as their growth and potential. Pediatricians are now seeing toddlers who weigh as much as 5-year-olds, and are diagnosing preschool aged children with obesity-related diabetes and liver disease. The lifelong effects of overweight and obesity can be prevented by changes in diet and promotion of healthy activity. Changing the way children eat in schools is an important step.
While some recently have expressed concern over the new restrictions on calories, the portion sizes and calorie ranges are in fact substantial, appropriate and essential to promoting healthy weight and address the crisis of obesity. School meals programs have had nutrition standards since 1946 during the Truman Administration. These new changes are simply making the standards healthier by incorporating the latest knowledge about children’s health and nutrition. In schools around the country, high school students are being served lunches that are around 850 calories or less. One sample menu from Ohio shows us that 850 calories translates to pepperoni pizza, a side salad with low-fat dressing, seasoned vegetables, a fresh pear, low-fat milk and cherry cobbler for dessert. A lunch option in Kansas includes spaghetti with meat sauce, garlic bread, garden salad, seasoned peas, two fruit servings and milk. Anyone would tell you that is a lot of food!
Schools and parents also have some flexibility so that highly active students, such as athletes who may need more calories beyond the school meals, have the ability to receive additional nutrients. Schools can structure after-school snack and dinner programs to include the requirements of athletes or children with other special needs. Parents can supplement with an additional snack or two from home. While it is certainly important to ensure that all active children are receiving enough calories, the unique needs of a few students should not prevent the rest from eating healthy, well-balanced meals while in school.
Reversing the childhood obesity epidemic will require a long-term, sustained commitment to solving the problem from multiple sources—parents, health professionals and government. We need to restore opportunities for physical activity, reduce screen time, build healthy habits early on, and enlist entire families and communities in maintaining kids’ health. However, improving the quality of meals served in school is a significant and needed component of this strategy, and one we cannot do without. While students may need some time to adjust to these healthier options, pediatricians know that the new national school meal standards are needed and will go a long way in tackling this crisis. We owe it to our children to provide them with healthy options and to work together to solve this problem.
McInerny, M.D., FAAP is president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.