BOSTON MA – School breakfast and lunch meals for today’s American students are more nutritious than what their parents ate. On average, they’re also likely to be healthier than any other foods students consume now, including those from or at home, a Tufts University study acknowledges.
Tufts’ researchers, however, suggest that with some tweaks school meals could be even better. The result, they claim, “would further support children’s well-being, and cut healthcare costs into adulthood.”
The study, reported Monday (July 31, 2023) in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, says students’ overall health could improve if school-supplied meals better adhered to U.S. nutrition standards.
They’re part of “the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” The list “provides advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and help prevent chronic disease,” according to a government website. The latest guidelines call for meals with less sugar and salt, and more whole grains.
The research was issued by the university’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “Fully synchronizing school meals with these new standards could positively impact hundreds of thousands of children into their adulthood,” its investigators said. The added benefit? “Saving billions in lifetime medical costs,” they added.
Even partial compliance by schools “would lead to overall reductions in short- and long-term health issues for participating K-12 students,” the study states.
“We’re at a critical time to further strengthen their nutrition,” says study senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, a Friedman School cardiologist and nutrition professor. “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 simulation model used to derive data for the study estimated results from three potential meal changes. It limited the percentage of energy from added sugar, required all grain foods to be whole grain, and lowered sodium content. If all schools fully complied with the standards, they might “prevent more than 10,600 deaths per year due to fewer diet-related diseases,” it concluded.
The proposed changes also would save more than “$19 billion annually in healthcare-related costs during later adulthood.”
The price to fully implement new school meal standards is yet to be determined, researchers admitted. Earlier alignments, they say, suggest changes would add at least another $1 billion nationally to the cost of these programs. That amounts to “only about 5 percent of the total predicted annual long-term healthcare savings this change would yield,” according to the study.