Nutrition

Consequences of Sugar, Even Before Childhood

We often hear just how bad sugar is for your health. We also know that limiting sugars in children’s diets - in drinks and desserts, for example - is probably a good idea. Furthermore, a recent Harvard study has found that high sugar consumption (particularly fruit sugars and sugary drinks) during pregnancy might lead to increased asthma risks in their children, according to the New York Times.

 

The study builds on existing literature that links “obesity and poor [nutrition]” to “current increases in childhood asthma.” In the study, researchers tracked more than 1,000 women during their pregnancies and looked at their children’s asthma diagnoses by the time they were 3 to 7-years-old. The women who consumed the least amount of sugar in the study had 21 grams per day on average while women who consumed the most amount of sugar in the study had 46 grams per day on average. Researchers also collected data on the mothers’ education level and pre-pregnancy body mass index (BMI), as well as children’s BMI and race.

 

As a result, they found that the children of women who had the most sugar were 58 percent more likely to have asthma than the children of mothers who had the least amount of sugar during pregnancy. A lead author of the study noted that the mechanisms behind this difference is still unknow; however, the idea that a mother’s diet during her pregnancy could impact her children’s health years later is very important.

 

Once a baby is born, environmental and hereditary factors may influence the baby’s future health. Yet it seems that in some respects, prenatal environment may also contribute to children’s long-term health.






 

New School Lessons: Eating Healthy

We hear a lot about the obesity epidemic in the United States, especially among children and adolescents. However, the impact that school meals have on childhood weight and overall health has been overlooked. A piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year looks at five creative ways schools can encourage students to eat more healthily. These interventions have been formulated to help schools meet the guidelines under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

 

Intervention One: Product Placement

Salad bars that feature at the front, or in the center, of a school lunch line are much more likely to attract students. Some Maryland elementary schools opened all-you-can-eat salad bars that featured five different fruits and five different vegetables a day and saw the number of students buying salad go up. In fact, one study found that strategic placement of vegetable options can increase consumption by as many as five times. Other schools planned the timing of vegetable snacks, so that hungry students were more likely to reach for them before a meal.

 

Intervention Two: New and Improved Advertising

Changing children’s preferences can be as simple as slicing up fruits for those with orthodontic appliances, or using more colorful bins to display fruits at lunch. “Stealth nutrition,” according to the WSJ piece, can also come in the form of food names that appeal to a young crowd (e.g. “X-Ray Carrots or Turbo Tomatoes.”) Attention-grabbing cartoon stickers on fruits can also increase consumption.

 

Intervention Three: Tracking Real Consumption

This is an intervention that can reduce waste, and at the same time, determines which foods are popular with students and which are not.  Researchers at some Chicago elementary schools recorded what foods were purchased and thrown out in order to determine the relative popularity of certain food groups.

 

Such measures can also increase parental involvement: some schools send home weekly report cards that record what a child ate throughout the week, based on lunch swipe summaries. Instead of remaining in the dark about what their children eat at school, parents can talk with their children about their meals or even compensate for missing nutrients at home.

 

Intervention Four: Bring in the Experts

Children can’t be expected to enjoy food that adults would also avoid. Chefs can consult for school menus or cook directly in schools. Over time, partnerships with chefs and local food sources can have a big impact.

 

Intervention Five: Field Trip!

Nutrition education should not have to be boring. In fact, it absolutely should not be, since a child’s first impression of a food item is crucial. Some elementary schools have started taking students on field trips to local farms, teaching ways of sustainability along with familiarizing students with new fruits and vegetables. They encourage students to make note of how a fruit smells, or what color a vegetable might be.  In NYC, the Wellness in School Program encourages students to make healthy choices for themselves based on what they observe in the fresh produce and nutrition labels they encounter.


 

Feeding Mind and Body: A New Role for Schools

Back in April, we wrote about how American households are not immune to the phenomenon of food insecurity. A recent New York Times piece discusses the importance of school meals in students’ development and learning. The benefits of having ready access to nutritious meals are, according to a research team at the University of California-Berkeley, threefold: “physical development” (e.g. eyesight), “cognition” (concentration and memory), and “behavior” (hyperactivity) are all directly impacted by what a student eats during the crucial formative years between kindergarten and high school.

 

When Michelle Obama was the first lady, she started health initiatives in school districts nationwide by setting up programs that incentivize schools to invest in healthier options for students. These programs did indeed have an impact: one study found that simply moving the salad bar from the margins to the middle of the serving area increased uptake. However, the current Congress has taken steps to dismantle many of these initiatives. It is surprising that a topic as seemingly uncontroversial as student nutrition could be treated as a partisan issue, especially given the fact that experts from multiple disciplines agree on its importance.

 

In states that have prioritized school nutrition, the results have been clear. Students at schools that work with healthy lunch vendors score significantly higher on standardized tests than their counterparts at schools without healthy options. Some schools have even ventured into providing breakfast and dinner for students that might otherwise go hungry outside of school hours (e.g. during after school activities.)

 

Funding is certainly always a factor, as school budgets face real challenges in delivering quality education with limited resources. However, research shows that some of the objections to healthy meals are untrue. If we think of student nutrition as an investment in their academic and personal development, and by extension, an investment in the future of society, prioritizing student health should be a no-brainer. It’s as clear as the very benefits of healthy food.

 

 

 

 

Securing a Good Start to Education

Today’s topic addresses one that may seem obvious to us, but also surprising in the United States. Children who grow up hungry in the first few years of childhood have been shown to lag behind classmates in school years later. Food insecurity, or being without reliable access to nutritious food, is a phenomenon that can be found in the United States: more than 13 million children are currently living in food-insecure homes nationwide. A recent article summarized in NPR (originally published in the journal Child Development) found that children who live in these homes before the age of five are more likely to lag behind their classmates in school socially and cognitively.

 

Also, it appears that these children don’t catch up to their peers. Researchers used data from the U.S. Department of Education from 2000 to 2006 to follow more than 10,000 children born in these households throughout their young childhood. They also interviewed the parents of these children to ask them about recent times they may have worried about food for the household. The researchers found that the younger that children were when they were exposed to food hardship, the stronger the negative effect on their performance in kindergarten (performance was measured by their ability to pay attention in class, their tendency to be hyperactive or throw tantrums, and their math and reading skills).

 

This negative effect might not be entirely attributable to the children themselves. After all, if children are hungry, then their parents are likely to be as well. The researchers affirmed that parents who are hungry can be more irritable and tired, and are less likely to engage with their children. These findings are certainly not surprising, but they confirm some important facts about early childhood and the important link between nutrition, parent interaction, and school performance. It is difficult to design interventions for very young children before they attend daycare or preschool, but the projections from this stage in life to performance in school cannot be ignored.


Food insecurity is definitely not just a foreign phenomenon, and not just an adult one. That there are millions of American children at risk of being insufficiently prepared for school should shock us all - but thanks to this kind of research, we’ll be able to lay the groundwork for erasing this gap in potential for children starting now.