The category of school-aged children includes children three to four years old who are preschoolers; elementary school children (kindergarten to fourth grade), who may be between four and ten years of age; middle school children between eleven and thirteen (grades five to eight); and high school children fourteen to eighteen (grades nine to twelve). Often, the nutrients their bodies need for optimal functioning and growth are different for each of these age groups.
The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) represent levels of intake of essential nutrients that, on the basis of scientific knowledge, are judged by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences to be adequate to meet the nutrient needs of practically all healthy persons. In the United States, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP), which provide free and reduced-priced meals for children in schools, are required to provide one-third of the RDAs at lunch and one-fourth of the RDAs at breakfast, thus ensuring that children eating at school consume adequate amounts of essential nutrients.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is also used to help determine the nutritional needs of American children. Through the DGA, the USDA recommends using the Food Guide Pyramid (FGP) as a tool for healthful food choices. Some key guidelines include not exceeding 30 percent of total energy intake from fat and getting less than 10 percent from saturated fats. The FGP for young children (two to six years old) identifies recommended portions of foods from grains (six servings), vegetables (three servings), fruit (two servings), milk (two servings), and meat (two servings), as well as recommending limiting the intake of fats and sweets. The nutrient needs of teens can be determined using the FGP for adults. The DGA also provide guidance in determining the number of servings of foods from each group, depending on total energy need.
While school-food service personnel attempt to provide healthful meals and food choices, children do not always eat the food they receive. The dietary patterns of children are determined by social, psychological, and economic factors.
Toddlers and preschoolers spend more time eating at home than they do in school. Their food choices and food preferences are thus largely dependent on what their parents and caregivers provide. When children are young, their parents and families have greater control over what they eat. As they get older, however, what their friends eat in the school environment, and what is available to them in school and elsewhere, will have an impact on what they eat. According to Kweethai Neill, Tom Dinero, and Diane Allensworth, what children eat at school is dependent on many factors, including the cafeteria environment, peer pressure, administrative support, teacher participation, cafeteria staff, and the quality of food choices offered.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, more families are headed by single parents than ever before, and a greater number of two-parent families have both parents in the workforce. As a result, toddlers and preschoolers often have to depend on their schools to feed them. If they are eligible for the SBP and NSLP at school, they can have free or reduced-priced breakfasts and lunches. Even so, there is no guarantee they will eat what they are given.
Children need nutritious foods to grow and to function. Many American adolescents skip breakfast by choice either because they do not have the time to eat or in order to lose weight. In addition, many school-aged children depend on junk foods for their nourishment. Studies on American adolescents show that, in general, they have inadequate intake of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. More than one-third of their daily intake comes from eating snacks between meals. These snacks include high-fat fast-food items such as cheeseburgers and potato chips. American teens consume more than a third of their calories from saturated fats. Krebs-Smith and colleagues found that one-fourth of the vegetables that children consume are french-fried potatoes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that 70.7 percent of high school students do not eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables during the day, that 72.6 percent do not attend physical education class daily. It is not surprising, given such findings, that childhood obesity is increasing.
Vending machines in schools also contribute to the obesity problem of school children. Many schools have signed contracts with beverage companies to place vending machines in schools. Schools receive huge amounts of “kickback” money for these contracts. In return, vending machines offer high-calorie non-nutritious sodas to students. Many vending machines in schools also provide snacks that are high in calories, fats, and sugars.
Snacking is fast becoming the main eating style among children in America. According to Jans and colleagues, there was a significant increase in snacking among children between the years 1977 to 1996. They found that the number of snacking occasions increased, thus increasing the total energy consumption for these children. They also reported that the proportion of energy consumption from fat increased.
Worldwide, adolescents consume more fat than they need to. Globalization and free trade have brought fast-food eating establishments to most countries, especially to developing nations. McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and places like these are commonly found in Europe, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Vegetable oils and fats are cheap and easily available, and more food products high in fats are accessible even to those of low-income persons in developing countries. Consequently, even poorer nations are no longer immune to the ills of Westernization, including obesity.
The shrinking world brought about by satellite television and the Internet has created a popular culture among teens around the world—a culture inundated by junk snacks, sodas, pizzas, and convenience foods. Eating a meal at the table is no longer a tradition, as nuclear families are more rare. Teens are used to “grab and run” eating styles, as are many adults. Food manufacturers and franchisers take advantage of this profit-making opportunity to produce more convenience foods, snacks, and beverages that are high in fats and calories. Teens prefer popular, tasty, and easy-to-find junk foods. The average American consumes more than forty-two gallons of soda a year. Many teens are included in this group.
While adolescents around the world are eating more calories, they are not necessarily eating healthier food. High fats and more calories, combined with a decrease in physical activity, have created an obesity problem among adolescents around the world. The increase in popularity of television viewing and video games, better public and private transportation, and the urbanization of cities account for adolescents adopting more sedentary lifestyles. In addition, children have fewer safe neighborhoods to walk, run, play and ride their bicycles in.
Between 1980 and 1994, the percentage of children who are overweight increased from 11 percent to 24 percent. The trend is also evident in Brazil, Chile, Britain, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, China (among children of high-income parents), Taiwan, Thailand, and Australia. American adolescents, although they are eating more in calories, have diets that are low in many important nutrients. Because of this, many are at risk for hyperlipidemia, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and obesity. Sixty-one percent of children between five and fifteen who are overweight have one or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and 27 percent of these children have two or more risk factors. Increasing numbers of children are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which was once considered an adult-onset disease related to obesity.
Overweight children have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight adults. Obesity in childhood, leading to obesity in adulthood, multiplies the health risks for these individuals. Obesity in childhood also brings with it emotional pain from being teased, isolated, and discriminated against. Over-weight children also suffer from low self-esteem, which may affect their ability to succeed at school.
While more adolescents become overweight, the media and peer pressure demand that girls look thinner and boys get bulkier. These societal pressures lead many teens to engage in disordered eating behaviors, such as extreme dieting. Consequently, many suffer from some form of eating disorder. Teens face a dilemma in a society that values youthfulness and thinness but encourages a lifestyle of sedentary convenience. Such a lifestyle includes a decrease in physical activity, and therefore energy expenditure, as well as fast foods full of fat and high in calories, making it difficult for adolescents to escape a sentence of obesity and ill health.
It is therefore important to encourage children, teenagers, and adults to adopt a physically active lifestyle and healthful eating habits, and to try to motivate young people to become healthier individuals. In addition, public policy to limit junk foods in schools and to encourage families to make healthful food choices for their children can also play a role.