Headlines: October 6th, 2005

The health of children who eat school dinners is no worse – and in some respects may even be better – than that of pupils who eat meals prepared at home, according to a study published today online by the British Medical Journal. The study comes only three days after the “Turning The Tables” report, which set out recommendations for changes to school menus to establish new minimum standards to ensure pupils get essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Those proposals are now the subject of a 13-week consultation.The researchers behind today’s study say that the nutritional content of school dinners has caused great concern but there is little information available comparing the health of school pupils who do and do not eat them. They have though welcomed moves to improve school meals.

They examined the health of more than a thousand secondary school pupils in England and Wales, assessing height, weight, and markers of fatness, such as waist and hip measurements, skinfold thickness, and percentages of body fat. The researchers also looked at several chronic disease risk factors like blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, and levels of the important vitamin folate.

The study found that pupils who ate school dinners had lower levels of several risk markers for chronic disease and that their levels of Leptin, one of the markers of body fatness, were also lower. The differences were unchanged even after factors such as social class, pubertal status and physical activity were taken into consideration.

Folate levels were also lower in pupils who normally ate school dinners and as a result the study’s authors are suggesting that the folate content of school dinners should be increased. They are also emphasising that, although the differences in chronic disease risk factors between the two groups of pupils were modest, the average health status of pupils eating school dinners appears no worse, and in some respects may be better, than the health status of pupils eating meals provided from home.

Professor Peter Whincup, the lead author of today’s report, said the current efforts to improve the quality of school dinners were to be applauded and the focus on fresh ingredients was welcome and should increase vitamin intake, but he added, “To improve the diets of British children and adolescents, we need to look beyond school dinners to address overall dietary patterns and their societal determinants.”