Back to School With Healthy Eating

Photo: Kids Smiling

With summer behind us and the new school year underway, many of us return to the drudge of early morning commutes and late night study sessions. We do this because we value education, for ourselves or our children.

As our days get busier, however, it’s easy to forget the value of eating healthy. This is particularly important for children. A low-fat, plant-based diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes as well as dairy products is a healthy option for growing children.

Children are especially vulnerable to poor eating habits as they are easily influenced by their environment. As such, healthy eating begins at home. As parents, it is our responsibility to exemplify proper eating habits and encourage them so that children will be educated to make the right choices as they grow into adulthood.

Proper nutrition is necessary to support a child’s growing body. Healthy eating has a positive effect on more than just physical growth, however. Studies show that eating a healthy breakfast is associated with better memory, clearer thinking, improved mood and more frequent attendance at school.1,2,3

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, put out by the Department of Health and Human Services, recommend a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat dairy products for anyone over 2 years old. The guidelines also recommend that everyone limit intake of saturated fat and trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, added sugars and refined grains.4

Providing healthy options in school is just as important. Too often, what children find in school vending machines are foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat but low in the fiber, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients that support healthy growth and development. Scientists are just beginning to appreciate the effects of stricter vending machine laws on childhood obesity. Many of the foods found in vending machines – such as candy bars, pretzels, potato chips, cookies and snack cakes – are made with highly refined ingredients and loaded with added salt, sugar and fat.

A recent study indicates that children who attend schools with stricter vending machine laws gain less weight than children with no restrictions on vending machines.5 The findings are incomplete, but have drawn much attention because of the prevalence and urgency of the problem.

In the past thirty years, the obesity rate in the United States has doubled for adults and tripled for children. Currently, nearly one fifth of all elementary school children in the nation are obese.6 The solutions implemented to address this issue include replacing sodas with water, fruit juice and milk. Others mandate that foods sold in schools must meet a minimum nutritional content.7

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that schools provide “nutritious and appealing foods and beverages” and that nutrition education be part of the school curriculum.8 Providing healthier options for children at home and in school are the best steps towards forming healthier eating habits. We cannot say this enough… making healthy options available to school-age children is especially important because the habits we form in childhood will likely be with us for most of our lives.

School is a time for young minds to devour new books, digest big ideas and absorb a greater understanding of the world around them. A healthy body aids all of this mental activity. If we want to help our children to succeed in school and grow into healthy adults, we need to make healthy options available to them, and educate them about the importance of making choices that support their health.

At Down to Earth, we know that a wholesome, plant-based diet can be appealing to children, and that as they grow, they will increasingly appreciate the health, well-being and mental clarity they experience as a result.

Check out this month’s Health Tip for some tasty kid-friendly snack and lunch ideas!

  1. Taras, H.L. Nutrition and student performance at school. (2005). Journal of School Health 2005;75:199–213.
  2. Rampersaud, G.C., Pereira, M.A., Girard, B.L., Adams, J., Metzl, J.D. Breakfast habits, nutritional status, body weight, and academic performance in children and adolescents. (2005). Journal of the American Dietetic Association;105:743–760.
  3. Hoyland, A., Dye, L., Lawton, C.L. A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents. (2009). Nutrition Research Reviews; 22:220–243.
  4. USDA: Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 2010.
  5. Taber, D., Chriqui, J., Perna, F., Powell, L., & Chaloupka, F. (2012). Weight status among adolescents in states that govern competitive food nutrition content. American Academy of Pediatrics, doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-3353
  6. Center for Science in the Public Interest. (n.d.). Obesity factsheet.
  7. National Conference of State Legislatures. (2012). Vending machines in schools.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, January 12). Adolescent and school health.