Restrictions on saturated fats and calories for school meals may still lead to unhealthy food choices being made. That is the claim put forward following an analysis by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH), presented at the American Public Health Association (APHA) Conference.

Guidelines for school meals

The guidelines for school meals were passed in 2010 under the name, the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). The act recommended the following measures for breakfasts and lunches:

  • Calories in lunches to be limited to 850 calories
  • For 51% of calories to come from whole grains
  • To increase the amount of vegetables and fruits offered
  • Saturated fats to be restricted to under 10% of total calories
  • Milk to be skimmed or have a 1% fat content
  • Only skim milk to be flavoured

The guidelines have previously attracted a number of criticisms, notably on account of the fact that the 850 calorie limit on lunches applied across the board regardless of the age of students, leading to too high a limit for younger children and too low a limit for older teenagers, particularly those involved in sports.

Low sense in low fat?

The criticism put forward by the analysis by the JHSPH researchers strongly questions the recommendation to limit saturated fat. Whilst the combination of saturated fat and carbohydrate makes for some of the worst food choices, such as fries and chips, there is less sense in terms of health for limiting saturated fat in favour of carbohydrate and sugar.

Sadie Barr, a student researcher at JHSPH, states: “The low-fat craze in the last two decades has caused Americans to transition to a high carb, low fat diet,” adding, “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.”

Research in recent years has shown clearly that good saturated choices can be a healthier option than carbohydrates. Dairy fats in the diet, such as from yoghurt, have been linked with significant reductions in rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in adults.

Sugar reigns in schools

The researchers in their review point out that neither carbohydrate not even sugar are restricted. This has lead the majority of schools to meet the guidelines whilst serving sugary products such as tinned fruit, fruit juice and sugary, flavored milk. The review also notes that the whole grain foods are highly processed and therefore not nearly as strong at providing lasting satiety as the guidelines were intended to be.

Barr finds the lopsided approach to nutrition bewildering: “The one thing I found shocking, 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.”

The JHSPH recommend that the HHFKA is re-drafted to include limits on added sugar and to reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates within meals.