As the new school year approaches, parents have to decide what their children will eat for lunch. Should they help the kids brown bag it or remember to take their lunch money? While this might not seem to be a major issue, it is - because the importance of school lunch rises with the rates of childhood obesity, say University of Alabama at Birmingham experts.
The number of obese children and teens in the United States has risen during the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of 2010, about 17 percent of kids ages 2-19 were considered obese, meaning they have a body-mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. The CDC says that makes them susceptible to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea and social discrimination.
"For many, childhood obesity extends into adulthood where these disorders have more impact on their health, so starting early is the key to prevention," says Stephenie Wallace, M.D., UAB assistant professor of pediatrics and medical director for the Children's Clinic for Weight Management at Children's Hospital (CCWM).
The CCWM is an interdisciplinary clinic for children whose efforts to work with their physicians on weight loss have not been successful; there, Wallace treats children who are at risk for heart problems caused by high cholesterol levels and hypertension.
"School meals can be a big part of the nutrition many children receive during the week," Wallace says. "Making both school breakfast and lunch meals healthier is one component to preventing obesity, heart disease and diabetes in children."
So what should kids be eating?
Lindsey Lee, M.A.Ed., R.D., L.D., clinical dietitian with EatRight by UAB Weight Management Services, says children need the nutrients from all food sources, including lean protein, monounsaturated fats, complex carbohydrates from whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruit and vegetables.
Lee says a healthy brown-bag lunch could have the following:
•Fresh, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables - baby-cut carrots, celery sticks, sliced apples, grapes and/or bananas. Canned fruits should be in their own juices, and vegetables should be low sodium.
•Dairy sources - reduced-fat string cheese, cottage cheese, low-fat milk or yogurt.
•Whole grains - 100 percent whole-wheat bread or pasta.
•Lean protein - boneless, skinless turkey and chicken breast, beans, legumes.
•Healthy fats - avocado, peanut butter, almonds and other nuts.
If you want to go classic — sandwich, chips and a drink — Lee says to watch the sodium content of the deli meat, skip the high-fat condiments like mayonnaise and use low-fat choices like mustard.