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10-04-2013 | General practice | Article

US state nutrition laws governing school meals predict pupil weight


Free abstract

medwireNews: US researchers have identified an association between strict state laws guiding nutrition in school meals and better weight status in students receiving free or reduced-price school meals compared with students who do not obtain these lunches.

Children receiving school meals tended to be from a lower socioeconomic background and more overweight than their counterparts who did not eat school meals, but the difference in obesity prevalence in schools that exceeded US Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards was 12.3 percentage points smaller than in those that simply met requirements.

Writing in JAMA Pediatrics, lead author Daniel Taber (University of Illinois at Chicago) and colleagues point out that the USDA standards in force in 2007, the year their data were taken from, were changed in 2012 to be more stringent, and thus the study "provides promising signs of the potential for the USDA updated standards to improve student weight status."

The study sample comprised 4870 eighth-grade students (typically 13-14 years old) from 40 states. Surveys were administered to parents to determine socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, and whether students received free/reduced-price lunches, regular-priced lunches, or brought their own lunch to school. Students were asked to complete questionnaires about their diet behaviors.

The results showed that in states that did not exceed USDA standards, students who obtained free/reduced-price lunches were almost twice as likely as students who did not obtain school lunches to be obese, at 26.0% versus 13.9%, whereas the disparity between groups was markedly reduced in states that exceeded USDA standards, at 21.1% versus 17.4%.

Even after adjusting for factors such as race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and physical activity, the difference in weight status between the two groups was smaller in states with stricter laws.

Furthermore, differences in mean body mass index percentile between students on school meals and those who brought lunch were 11 units smaller in states with laws that exceeded USDA standards.

The results were similar when comparing students who received free/reduced-price lunches and those who obtained regular-priced lunches, but the difference was not as large.

There was little evidence that students compensated for school meals with higher nutrition standards by buying sweets, snacks, or sugary drinks.

In an accompanying editorial, Marion Nestle (New York University, USA) comments that "Taber and colleagues provide important evidence to support the value of strong, far-reaching public health initiatives to counter childhood obesity." However, she adds that the new USDA nutrition regulations have come under attack from the food industry.

"Objections to school nutrition standards must be recognized for what they do: place the financial health of food companies and their supporters in Congress above the health of the nation's children," Nestle argues.

medwireNews ( is an independent clinical news service provided by Springer Healthcare Limited. © Springer Healthcare Ltd; 2013

By Afsaneh Gray, medwireNews Reporter