Does eating right make schoolchildren perform better? A team led by Arthur Agatston, a cardiologist and creator of the popular South Beach diet, presented findings at an Obesity Society meeting over the weekend showing that improving the nutritional quality of school meals bolstered the academic performance of students over a two-year period, in addition to lowering their weight and blood pressure. The researchers saw significant increases in math scores among the 1,197 elementary students who participated in the Healthier Options for Public Schoolchildren obesity prevention program, an intervention currently used in 79 schools in seven states.
The program targets low-income students who qualify for the free or reduced-cost lunch programs run by the federal government. In addition to putting more healthful food choices in the cafeteria, it features a focus on good nutrition through school assemblies, class activities, and by having adults model good eating habits. U.S. News caught up with Agatston to learn more about the connection between nutrition and academic performance.
Were you surprised to see that academic skills improved with a better diet?
Not really. Ask any teacher about the sugar high kids have after lunch. They're bouncing off the walls, and then they fall asleep. It makes sense that students are going to pay attention more and learn more if they're eating well.
How exactly did you change the kids' diets?
Many kids—while overfed—are literally malnourished. Our idea was to go into elementary schools and really change what kids ate and try to have them exercise more. This wasn't a diet. We weren't having them count calories or anything like that. We just offered kids wholesome food—meaning there was less saturated fat, no trans fats, and more whole grains and fruits and vegetables. We used, for example, better oils, such as olive oil.
Were the kids willing to eat the new, more healthful foods?
Absolutely. Kids will get excited about good food. We ran one assembly, in fact, that had kids standing up and cheering and giving each other high-fives for broccoli and fiber. Each month there are posters with cartoon characters about the food of the month. We had taste tests with older kids. Some of the schools even had kids help grow vegetable gardens. It's really true: What kids grow, they'll eat.
It wasn't always easy. There were challenges. Some parents and people within some of the schools weren't always interested in what we were trying to do. In the beginning, when we first substituted in all-bran cereal for Froot Loops, the kids threw it out. So we went to Raisin Bran as a compromise
What are some substitutions that parents at home can make to replicate your success?
The No. 1 thing is to get rid of hydrogenated oils, the trans fats. Those are probably the worst—even worse than saturated fats. So: less fried foods and fast foods. You want to maximize fruits and vegetables. You can use sweet potatoes for regular potatoes, brown rice for white rice, rye or whole-grain bread for white bread. You want to go toward whole foods. If your grandmother couldn't recognize something as food, you probably shouldn't eat it.
How did you convince the school cafeterias to change?
At first, it was hard to get things like whole grains into the schools. Vendors weren't really oriented toward healthy options. By the second year, with the encouragement of USDA and the realization that new guidelines are coming down the pike similar to what we advise, it's become much easier. The environment is really changing.
Were there concerns that the healthful food would cost more?
Yes, that was an obstacle at first. For the study, we said we'd just pay the difference between the good food and the regular food, but we're quite convinced that as more schools ask for good food, that food shouldn't cost significantly more. We've met with USDA about this, and we're sure that healthy food will be affordable as long as there's enough demand.
How can parents get involved if they'd like to see their kids' cafeterias improved?
People should absolutely complain to their congressperson if they feel the school food is bad. This isn't a local cosmetic issue. Ultimately, it's our health and the future of our economy at stake. It doesn't really matter if we have a one-payer healthcare system or a market system or whatever. If we don't deal with kids today, we're going to overwhelm whatever future medical system we have. The problem is much bigger than people realize. Young adults are having more heart disease and heart attacks. It's a huge problem that goes way beyond cosmetics or a kid being teased because he's overweight. It's going to have a huge economic impact unless we act now.