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School Meals and Heart Health: Are they aligned?

by: Marge Robison, MPH, RDN, LD

February is Heart Health Month, a time when all people are encouraged to focus on habits that impact their heart health.  Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death worldwide and has increased by 17% over the past decade according to the American Heart Association (AHA).  Not only is a heart healthy diet recommended for adults, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that healthy children age 2 and older follow the same heart healthy guidelines recommended for adults. Promoting healthy habits during childhood can form the foundation and building blocks for making healthy food choices as adults.  The nutrition standards required for meals served in the National School Lunch Program align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans which provides recommendations for eating that promote health and disease prevention.  

So, what are some of these heart healthy recommendations and how do meals served at schools support the heart health of our students?

AHA Recommendation: Eat foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars. 

  • Since trans fats and saturated fats are some of the leading drivers of cardiovascular disease, school meals are required to limit the amount of saturated fat in meals served to <10% of calories and foods with trans fats are not allowed - long are the days of fryers in school kitchens!  

  • Sodium in school meals is also limited to specified amounts, according to the ages of the children served.  Instead of salt packets or salt shakers on the tables, many schools utilize seasoning stations where a variety of salt free seasonings are offered for students to experiment with in adding additional flavors to their foods without salt. 

  • Currently there are no limitations on sugar content of school meals, although the  USDA is now considering sugar limitations to be added into as an additional nutrition standard. In preparation for this standard and to promote healthier meals, many schools are working towards strategies to limit sugar in meals.  Que the revolt of the pop-tart eaters now!

AHA Recommendation:  Serve whole-grain/high-fiber breads and cereals rather than refined grains. 

  • School meals are required to have at least 80% of the grains they serve come from whole grain sources. Walk into a school cafeteria and you're likely to see whole grain cereals, whole grain breads and pasta, and yes - even whole grain pizza crust! While students may give some ‘side-eye’ at first, we find that for the majority of items they are accepting of whole grains.  For those menu items that students are less accepting of whole grain, schools may use their allowable 20% non-whole grain ‘hall pass’ to offer the non-whole grain version of the food. 

AHA Recommendation: Serve a variety of fruits and vegetables daily, while limiting juice intake.

  • Schools must offer fruits and vegetables daily and students are required to take at least ½ cup of a fruit or vegetable with a meal. Juice may not exceed 50% of the fruits served.  In addition, schools are required to offer vegetables from specific vegetable subgroups weekly - and NO, ketchup is not permitted as a vegetable option! School menu planners must ensure that they serve red-orange, dark green, starchy, legume and other vegetables in specific quantities each week. 

AHA Recommendation: Serve fat-free and low fat dairy foods.

  • Schools are required to only offer fat free or low fat milk options.  Other dairy products served must be evaluated so that when served they do not exceed the recommendations for saturated fat. 

Students eating school lunches are receiving meals that meet many (most) of the heart healthy diet recommendations. Walk into a school cafeteria and assess the nutritional content of a school lunch compared to what is often in a packed lunch and overall you're likely to find school lunches have greater nutritional quality. This is not just anecdotal, but also supported by research. By continuing to promote a heart-healthy diet in schools, we can help lay the foundation for students to develop healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime.


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