Canadian children’s diets fall short while at school

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25 Aug 2017 --- Children in Canada don't eat enough vegetables, fruit or dairy products during school hours, causing them to fail to reach several daily dietary recommendations on school days, a new University of British Columbia (UBC) study has found.

The findings come as the Organization of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Kids Eat Right month draws to a close in the US. The month has similarly drawn attention to the poor state of children’s nutrition today at a time when one in five children in the country has been labeled “obese.” Meanwhile, in the UK, Public Health England has shifted its focus away from solely cutting down on sugar to crack down on childhood obesity.

“Before this study, nobody in Canada had looked at actual differences in dietary intake patterns between school hours and non-school hours,” says lead author Claire Tugault-Lafleur, a Ph.D. candidate in UBC's human nutrition program, of the UBC study. “If we want to inform nutrition policies and dietary interventions for schools, we have to look not only at foods consumed at school, but also examine the contribution of these foods to a child's daily dietary intake. Very few people are looking at that.”

Click to EnlargeLower intake during school hours
According to the research published in the Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism journal, children consumed approximately one-third of their total daily calories during school hours, but intake of dairy products and key nutrients found in milk – like calcium and vitamin D – was lower during school hours compared to the rest of the school day. This issue was compounded by the fact that intake of less nutritious foods like sugar-sweetened beverages, salty snacks and candies was relatively higher during school hours.

Researchers examined data from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey involving 4,827 children across Canada between the ages of six and 17. Respondents provided information about the food and beverages they had consumed in the past 24 hours. The UBC study compared the nutritional profile of foods consumed during school hours (between 9 am and 2 pm) with foods outside of school hours.

The researchers devised a School Healthy Eating Index (School-HEI), a score based on 11 key components of a healthy diet that examines the totality of foods and beverages consumed by Canadian children during school hours. The average score of 53.4 points (out of a maximum of 100) for all Canadian children suggests substantial room for improvement, the UBC press release reports.

The researchers also looked at sociodemographic information to examine whether any factors were associated with differences in diet quality among subgroups of children. They found that diet quality scores during school hours averaged nine points lower among children aged 14 to 17 compared to children aged 6 to 8. Children in Quebec, on average, scored at least five points higher than peers in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Manitoba. Children from families with post-secondary education had scores that averaged two points higher, enough to be statistically significant.

Looking to the future, Tugault-Lafleur says she now looks forward to comparing the data with a new set collected during the 2015 Canada Community Healthy Survey and released in early August.

”To know what was happening in terms of baseline in 2004, and to be able to make comparisons over the last decade, seems really promising,” she adds. “I'd like to see if there are some places in the country where we see greater improvements in school-hour diet quality, and whether different initiatives or school nutrition policies were implemented in these regions from 2004 to 2015.” 

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