Improved School Nutrition Standards May Lower Adolescent Obesity Interview with:
Yvonne M. Terry-McElrath, MSA

Research Associate, Survey Research Center, Institute of Social Research
University of Michigan Tobacco Research Center

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Terry-McElrath: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently improved nutrition standards for federally-reimbursable school lunch and breakfast programs. Most lunch standards were implemented at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year and changes in breakfast began with the 2013-14 school year. Beginning in 2014, schools participating in federally-reimbursable meal programs were also required to improve nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in vending machines, stores/snack bars/carts, and à la carte cafeteria lines. The new standards limit fats, sodium, sugar, and calories; and will eventually remove candy; regular-fat salty snacks/sugary treats; higher-fat milks; high-fat, high-calorie savory foods; and sugar-sweetened beverages, like regular soda, fruit drinks and high calorie sports drinks. They were developed in response to rising overweight/obesity among US children and adolescents.

This study uses five years of data from nationally-representative samples of middle and high school students—and their school administrators—to examine three research questions: What percentage of US secondary students attended schools in 2008-2012 where foods and beverages met at least some of the USDA standards that were to begin phased implementation starting in 2012-13? Is there evidence that those standards were associated with student overweight/obesity? Is there evidence of the effect of those standards on racial/ethnic minorities and students from lower income families? Using data from schools even before the new USDA standards went into effect can indicate potential effect of the standards once they have been in effect for several years. The research was conducted through two studies: The Monitoring the Future study, supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Youth, Education and Society study, part of a larger research initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, titled “Bridging the Gap: Research Informing Policy and Practice for Healthy Youth Behavior.”

Study findings show that from 2008-2012, few middle or high school students attended schools where food and beverage standards would be judged to meet at least some of the USDA school nutrition standards that began to be implemented in 2012-13. Significant increases in the number of standards over time were seen for middle but not high school students. Among high school students, having fruits and vegetables available wherever foods were sold, the absence of higher-fat milks, and increasing the number of positive nutrition standards were associated with significantly lower odds of overweight/obesity. Not having sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with lower overweight/obesity for middle and high school minority students.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Terry-McElrath: The USDA school meal and competitive venue standards – if implemented fully and monitored for compliance – have the potential to significantly improve the current U.S. school nutritional environment.  Such improvements may then lead to improved student nutritional intake and lowered risk for overweight and obesity.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Terry-McElrath: Future research will be needed to monitor both implementation of and compliance with USDA standards for school meals and competitive venues. Especially need will be research that examines how student nutrition and overweight/obesity associates with changes in the school nutrition environment both overall and within groups at higher risk for poor nutrition-related outcomes.



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