Researchers compared the nutritional profile of foods consumed during and outside school hours, using data from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, the last survey to offer comprehensive national-level data on Canadian students’ dietary habits.
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They found that children consumed around one-third of their total daily calories while at school, but didn’t receive enough key nutrients such as calcium, protein, and vitamins A and D during school hours, because of a preference for junk food and sugary beverages over vegetables, fruit and dairy products.
The nearly 5,000 Canadian students included in the study averaged a score of 53.4 out of 100 on the researchers’ special healthy eating index scale.
Lead researcher Claire Tugault-Lafleur told Global News that the results reflect broader, long-held concerns about Canadian children’s diets.
“We already know that children are falling short of having enough fruits, vegetables and dairy products in their diet,” she said. “However, prior to this study, no one had looked at whether foods consumed at school reduced or improved students’ overall diet quality… our study shows that schools have an opportunity to tackle that problem.”
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Secondary school students were found to have far lower diet quality scores than elementary school children, which might partly be attributed to the increased independence and autonomy enjoyed by older students.
“There may be more parents packing lunch boxes for their kids when they’re younger, while older kids might be more independent or left to themselves to decide what they want to pack for lunch… or they might also have the autonomy of leaving school grounds to get their foods,” Tugault-Lafleur said.
She added that both parents and school authorities have a role to play in remedying Canadian children’s inadequate school-time diets.
“At the individual level, I think parents could focus on packing more of those sorts of foods in lunch boxes while avoiding minimally nutritional packaged foods… which are most convenient to grab and pack.”
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Tugault-Lafleur says the study, while underscoring areas of concern about Canadian children’s diets, also highlights the vast opportunity for improvement.
“Schools have long been recognized as good places for health interventions for kids and ways of promoting health, and this study really shows that schools represent an opportunity that we can use to try and improve children’s overall diets.”