Longer Lunch, Healthier Lunch

School lunch period time linked to fruit and vegetable intake in elementary, middle school kids

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Getting kids to eat their fruits and veggies at school can be difficult. But it may just be a matter of time.

A new study from the nonprofit organization Project Bread and Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) found that elementary and middle school students who were given longer lunch periods were more likely to choose fruits, and to eat more of their veggies and entrees.

"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," said lead author study Juliana F.W. Cohen, ScD, ScM, in a press release. "This research suggests that enabling students to have sufficient time to eat their meals can help address this important issue."

Dr. Cohen is an assistant professor of nutrition at HSPH.

According to Dr. Cohen and team, school lunches can provide almost half of a low-income child’s daily calorie intake. Children who eat all of their lunches also tend to be healthier.

These researchers used data from the Measuring Eating in Everyday Life Study (MEALS) to look at the amount and type of food children left on their plates during six nonconsecutive days in the 2011 to 2012 school year. This data was then compared to lunch period length.

About 44 percent of children who had 20 minutes or less of seated lunch time chose fruit, while about 57 percent of children who had 25 minutes or more did the same.

Children who had 20 minutes or less of seated lunch time also ate 13 percent less of their entrees, 10 percent less fruit, and 12 percent fewer vegetables than children who had 25 minutes or more.

According to Dr. Cohen and team, many students in this study also spent a considerable amount of time traveling to the cafeteria and/or waiting in line for lunch. After taking this into account, some children had as little as 10 minutes to sit down and eat.

"Although not all schools will be able to accommodate longer lunch periods, several other factors have been cited as areas where schools can improve the amount of time students have to eat," Dr. Cohen said. "Increasing the number of serving lines, more efficient cashiers, and/or an automated point of sale system can all lead to enhanced efficiency for students going through lunch lines."

This study was published Sept. 11 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Arabella Insurance funded this research. No conflicts of interest were disclosed.

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