a whole wheat sandwich sliced diagonally atop a white plate

Making the switch to whole grains is one of the most impactful (and delicious!) nutrition shifts we can make. Low intake of whole grains is a leading risk factor for mortality and disability-adjusted life years and is also a leading risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Not surprisingly, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have long recommended that people make at least half their grains whole.

Nutritious school meals improve the dietary quality of children in the short term, and new research suggests that the benefits can extend into adulthood as well, making stronger whole grain standards in lunches more imperative than ever.

In a new study published last week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers used comparative risk assessment frameworks to estimate the short-term and long-term health impacts of fully aligning the U.S. National School Lunch program with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

If all school meals were to fully comply with the Dietary Guidelines, researchers estimate improved BMI and blood pressure for children in the short term, as well as 10,600 fewer deaths from heart disease, diabetes, and cancer in adulthood. These health improvements would save an estimated 355,000 disability-adjusted life-years and an estimated $19.3 billion in direct and indirect medical costs each year.

While many aspects of the current and proposed school nutrition standards are aligned with the Dietary Guidelines, stronger school meal standards for whole grains, added sugars, and sodium are needed to be able to fully realize these health benefits. As it stands, the proposed school nutrition standards for the 2024-2025 school year mandate whole grains at an amount 20% lower than is recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

In addition to direct health benefits, making whole grains more available in the lunchroom is a necessary, commonsense approach for helping kids adapt to the taste for whole grain foods, so that they can carry their whole grain habits into adulthood. Study after study affirms that repeated exposure to whole grains can lead people to enjoy and prefer whole grain foods. To serve whole grains in amounts lower than those recommended in the Dietary Guidelines would squander this pivotal period in exposure and taste development.  

Improving school nutrition standards by strengthening the whole grain requirement is a win-win for both health and the economy. “Policy-makers should consider both the health and economic benefits of stronger school nutrition policies across the life course,” urge the authors of this study. We couldn’t agree more! (Kelly)


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