Middle School Can Mean More Calories

Study finds kids eat worse when they have a snack bar at their disposal

TUESDAY, March 9, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The jump from elementary to middle school isn't just a rite of passage.

It's a quick ticket to poorer nutrition, courtesy of "grazing" at snack bars in school, according to a new report.

Consumption of fruits, non-fried vegetables and milk dropped by one-third or more in a southeast Texas school district after children made the transition to middle school. And the students ate 62 percent to 68 percent more french fries and sweetened beverages than they did the year before, the study says.

While other study researchers have focused on hot school lunches provided by cafeterias, the snack bars have been overlooked, explains study co-author Karen Weber Cullen, assistant professor of behavioral nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine.

Few elementary schools offer snack bars, but middle and high schools often do, giving students a chance to buy food products ranging from soft drinks and fruit to salads and candy.

In the new study, Cullen and her colleagues surveyed 594 fourth- and fifth-graders from an unidentified school district from 1998 to 2000. (The students in the district attend middle school as of fifth grade.)

The researchers report their findings in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Faced with three choices -- bringing food from home, buying a hot lunch, or choosing items at a snack bar -- 35 percent of the students chose to "graze" entirely at the snack bar, Cullen says.

Overall, without the simple choice between school lunch and lunch brought from home, "students ate less fruit, less milk and fewer regular vegetables that aren't fried," she says. They drank more sweetened drinks -- including Gatorade, punch, soft drinks and sweetened iced tea -- and gobbled down more french fries and tater tots, she says.

Many students even went to the snack bar after receiving a subsidized hot lunch for free. "There were plenty of kids who finished off their meal with a nice ice cream bar," Cullen says.

Part of the problem was that the snack bars didn't offer fruit. But even if there was fruit, it may not have appealed to the students, Cullen says. Oranges, for instance, require peeling and leave students' hands sticky. They're also a nightmare for students with braces, as are apples, she says.

School districts could make fruit more appealing by cutting and slicing it, or offering canned fruit, Cullen says.

She adds that carrot sticks can be a nutritious hit, too, if provided with a low-fat dip. And big bottles of water could become a bigger seller if offered at the same price as smaller bottles of soft drinks, she says.

"There are things that can be done in a cost-effective way that will at least provide choice," Cullen says. "We really need to focus on presentation and making healthy choices available and making the whole place look nice."

Jo Ann Hattner, a California dietician and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, agrees. "It's a misnomer and a myth that kids won't eat healthy foods," she says. "They'll eat healthy foods, but they need quality foods."

More information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more on healthy school meals. Or sign up for a free newsletter from the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

SOURCES: Karen Weber Cullen, Dr.P.H., R.D., L.D., assistant professor, behavioral nutrition, Children's Nutrition Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston; Jo Ann Hattner, clinical nutritionist, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif., and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; March 2004 American Journal of Public Health
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