PhotoGood intentions aren't always enough to produce the desired outcome. And that may be the case with new federal regulations intended to make school meals healthier. 

The new federal regulations requiring school meals to contain more whole grains, less saturated fat and more fruits and vegetables may be improving some aspects of the food being served at schools across the United States but they may also be perpetuating eating habits linked to obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases, an analysis by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers has found.

The reasons: Based on analysis of school meals and the new requirements, the whole grains served are mostly processed, which means they are converted into sugar when digested, and many of the required foods, like fruit and milk, contain added sugar because many schools opt to serve canned fruit, fruit juice, and flavored milk.

The new requirements do not limit the amount of added sugar in school meals. The researchers are recommending that the requirements be expanded to limit added sugars and processed foods and to ensure carbohydrate quality.

Low-fat craze

"The low-fat craze in the last two decades has caused Americans to transition to a high carb, low fat diet," notes Sadie Barr, a student in a joint MPH-MBA program at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Carey Business School. "This has been strongly linked to obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases, in large part because the majority of the carbs we have been eating are processed. School lunches, even with these new regulations, still largely reflect this diet."

Congress passed the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010. It requires school meals (breakfast and lunch) to consist of 51% whole grains, increases the amount of fruits and vegetables offered to students, restricts saturated fats to less than 10% of meal calories, imposes calorie restrictions and only allows skim or 1% milk to be served (only skim milk is allowed to be flavored). The goal was to provide nutritious food that promoted healthful eating.

"The one thing I found shocking," notes Barr, "is that the HHFKA regulation requirements make no mention of carbohydrates. The word 'fat' is mentioned perhaps hundreds of times. But the word 'carbohydrate' is not mentioned once. They didn't recognize that primary macronutrient. Requiring grains served to be at least 51% whole is a step in the right direction, but isn't enough to ensure that the meals served will be more whole and less processed, which would be more advantageous to health."

The researchers, in addition to recommending that HHFKA be expanded to limit added sugars, curtail the amount of processed carbohydrates and increase whole grain and whole food products, are recommending that an independent panel of experts be convened to reevaluate the saturated fat and calorie restriction. This would help insure that processed carbohydrates are not replacing saturated fats, Barr says.

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