This school year, there has been quite the buzz about the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This legislation was put into effect this school year and with it, several changes to school lunch (and breakfast) programs. Although there are a few underlying reasons behind this program, a big one is the increasing rate of childhood obesity.
On one hand, some of the processed food has been cut out of school food programs, while more fruit, vegetables and whole grains have been added to the daily menu. (I won’t even pick on the grains issue right here… knowing that whole grains are probably a huge improvement for countless kids.) However, there has also been a decrease in protein and overall “allowed” calories.
I’ve talked to many health-minded parents who are scratching their heads over this one, too.
Friends of ours with kids in middle school who rely on the school lunch program recently told me that their son could no longer create his favorite lunch in the school cafeteria because it contained “too many calories”. I was bracing myself for them to tell me that his favorite was something like a platter of pasta with Alfredo sauce and a side of cheese fries!
Nope. His favorite was a piece of flat bread topped with turkey and other lunch meats, plus lettuce, peppers, onions, tomatoes, olives, shredded cheese, etc. Basically, it was a “subway” type sandwich without the 12 inches of thick sub bread. Too many calories… mostly from the meat, they said.
Go have a plate of pasta or piece of pizza instead instead.
OK, so I’m not a fan of eating toxic meat or dairy… but that’s clearly not the point here.
Not all calories are created equal.
When you make a sweeping generalization like, “fewer calories means less childhood obesity”, you overlook some critically important distinctions. For example, cutting calories can also cut out key nutrients. Our bodies can use some calories far more efficiently than others.
More on that in a minute.
And how about the protein requirements? It’s recommended that children in kindergarten through eighth grade receive ONE ounce of protein daily! For high school kids this is ever-so-generously increased to two ounces. Protein is a crucial source of essential amino acids, and especially important to growing children.
In adults, eating MORE quality protein is actually a critical component of body weight and body fat SOLUTIONS! People who start eating more protein will shed more fat and gain more lean muscle. Lean muscle is what helps us metabolize fat throughout the day.
Protein gives you the feeling that you’re full, even more than fat or carbs. Protein boosts your sensitivity to a hormone called leptin – this is the hormone tells your brain that you’re full. As a result, you feel satisfied and don’t tend to overeat as much.
Protein is also key in helping us develop lean muscle. This lean muscle helps us burn more fat and calories throughout the day.
How did we end up at a place where “nutritional” guidelines drastically limit the intake of protein for children?
We are starting kids on the WRONG track with their nutritional mindset. This is not the solution to childhood obesity.
The source and quality of calories must always remain the primary focus, both for healthy nutrition, as well as for achieving and maintaining a healthy body composition. It’s not that decreased caloric intake is a flawed concept – it’s not. However, taken out of context, or applied out of order, and the results can be exactly the opposite of what we desire.
If we consider the Standard American Diet full of processed foods, toxic dairy and grains, grain-fed toxic meats… all loaded with chemicals, hormones, insecticides, pesticides, artificial flavors, colors and sweeteners… our bodies already think they’re starving. To some extent, they are! They’re starving for nutrients.
Now, keep eating foods from that diet, but strictly limit calories? Now your brain believes the situation has just gotten worse. Your body will take in everything you’re consuming and store it as fat for your survival. Our food choices – more than the calorie count – will direct our physiology toward building fat at the expense of everything else.
Know what you end up with when you restrict calories in the Standard American Diet? You end up with a population that feels run down, tired, is immune-suppressed, is pumping out stress hormones like crazy, has a hard time focusing and balancing their moods and emotions, and is developing chronic illness faster than at any other time in human history!
We can change that by convincing our brains and bodies that “it’s OK… we’re not starving… we don’t need to store fat… we’re safe and the environment is good!”
Our ancestors laid the foundation for our own cellular requirements. Thousands of years of evolutionary experience continue to drive what our bodies require for optimal function and composition.
Consuming more protein is part of this healthy equation.
“Clean” sources of protein, plants, healthy fats, and pure water. How’s that for a simple menu?! (OK, there’s a bit more to it than that, but this is a great starting point.)
We should try to get our protein from a variety of sources, keeping in mind that many leading health and nutrition experts agree that our bodies absorb animal protein more efficiently than plant protein.
For adults, it’s recommended that we consume one gram of protein for every pound of lean muscle. This helps us utilize our stored fat instead of hanging onto it in the event that we might starve someday! (So, if you weigh 160 lbs. and you have 25% body fat, then you have 120 lbs. of lean muscle. So, you could work toward 120 grams of protein per day. Get it?)
By the way, if you’re not sure what your body fat percentage is, the average woman is somewhere between 18-22%, while the average man is 15-18%.
Unfortunately, the body fat percentage rates for children, adolescents and teens are quickly gaining ground on adults!
It’s quite a drastic difference in protein recommendations, isn’t it?
We have this legislation telling us 1-2 grams of protein per day for kids, yet true health experts unequivocally state that we should be consuming much, much more protein for a variety of health reasons, including the correction of weight issues.
At the very least, we can make more of a concerted effort to add quality sources of protein to the meals that we DO oversee for our children. If they eat breakfast at home, be sure to incorporate a healthy protein to start their day off in a healthier, more hormonally balanced and more metabolically effective way.
Of course, the same is true for after school snacks and dinner. Be sure to incorporate a balanced mix of healthy protein, healthy fats and fresh fiber in the form of vegetables &/or fruit.
Hopefully, the decision-makers behind school foods will get on board with current nutritional and metabolic at some point in the near future. Until that point, we can just make sure to provide a healthier foundation for our kids while they’re under our wing.