Written in collaboration with Sari Kalin, MS, RD, LDN
French fries and pizza don't make a healthy meal, especially not for America's school children, one out of three of whom are overweight or obese. Yet Congress chose to save these junk foods on school lunch menus -- in effect, putting profits of a narrow part of the food industry ahead of our country's future health.
Congress' final version of a major spending bill has undermined a long-awaited U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plan for improving school food. The USDA's original plan was rooted firmly in nutrition science -- the first update that our school lunch guidelines have had in 15 years -- and it could have helped this country fight the twin epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Congress' meddling, however, was rooted purely in food politics: Frozen pizza makers, potato growers and other food industry players spent millions of dollars lobbying legislators about the school lunch changes.
The USDA's plan would have limited the amount of potatoes and starchy vegetables that school lunch rooms could serve to one cup a week. Schools would replace potatoes and fries with a variety of health-promoting vegetables, especially the dark green and orange types that most of our kids don't eat often enough -- broccoli, spinach, carrots and the like. The plan would also have closed a loophole that allowed a scant 2 tablespoon serving of tomato paste to "count" toward the school lunch vegetable requirements. Bumping the tomato paste serving from 2 tablespoons to 1/2 cup would have meant that a pizza slice, with its dab of tomato sauce, could no longer be called a vegetable. These changes were part of a broad revamp of federally-funded school meal programs, based on recommendations from a year-long review by a committee of nutrition experts convened by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Congress's support of unlimited feeding of potatoes to children is particularly damaging to their health. At present, potatoes make up about 30 percent of the vegetables that kids eat each day, but unlike other vegetables they undermine rather than promote health. Potatoes are very high in carbohydrate -- specifically, the type of carbohydrate that is rapidly digested by the body. Eating large quantities of potatoes and similar "fast" carbohydrates leads to spikes and dips in blood sugar and insulin, which in turn can lead people to feel hungry again shortly after finishing a meal -- a perfect recipe for overeating. Long term, people who eat diets high in potatoes and other fast-digested, carbohydrate-rich foods have a higher risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Potatoes, of course, do contain vitamin C and potassium, among other nutrients. But potatoes aren't the only way for our children to get these important nutrients, and they're hardly the best: A cup of broccoli has nearly nine times as much vitamin C as a cup of potato, and white beans have about twice as much potassium. Yet a cup of potatoes has a similar effect on blood sugar as a 12-oz can of Coca Cola. Clearly, there's no reason for children to pay this steep metabolic price for vitamins and minerals that can easily get from other foods.
Given the high amounts of rapidly-absorbed carbohydrate in potatoes, it should be no surprise that they increase the risk of weight gain, obesity and diabetes. In recent analyses conducted at Harvard School of Public Health, we tracked 120,000 men and women in three large studies for up to 20 years to evaluate the relation of small changes in food choices to weight gain. In all three studies, people who increased their potato consumption gained more weight. French fries were a particular culprit for weight gain, linked to a gain of an extra 3.4 pounds every four years. But even baked or mashed potatoes were associated with extra weight gain. People who cut back on these foods gained less weight, as did people who ate more of other vegetables. In an earlier report, we found that greater consumption of potatoes was associated with an elevated incidence of type 2 diabetes; replacing one serving of whole grains per day with potatoes was associated with a 30 percent increase in risk. These are all reasons why potatoes should be considered an undesirable form of starch in diets and why we don't count them as vegetables on Harvard's new Healthy Eating Plate. There were very sound reasons for the Institute of Medicine to recommend limiting consumption of potatoes and replacing these with healthy vegetables on school menus.
In addition to ensuring that school menus continue to fatten up our children and add to their future risk of diabetes, Congress added language that forces the USDA to keep the current portion sizes on tomato products so that pizza slices remain a vegetable. By comparison, the Reagan administration's infamous (and ultimately, unsuccessful) move to have ketchup counted as a vegetable seems like minor tinkering. Congress also stalled the USDA's plans to reduce sodium in school lunch until the USDA reviews more research on "the relationship of sodium reductions to human health."
However, there is no reason for delay, because the vast literature on sodium and health has already been reviewed recently by the American Heart Association and the Institute of Medicine. Despite what the salt industry would have you believe, there is no reason to hold back on reducing the high amounts of sodium in kids' meals: More than 90 percent of school children are getting more than recommended amounts of sodium each day. Strong evidence documents that diets high in sodium increase the risk of high blood pressure, even in youth, and thus increase the risk of heart disease later in life.
Unfortunately, Congress imbedded their changes to the school lunch plan in a broad spending bill that President Obama could not veto. This is a short term victory for potato growers and narrow parts of the food industry, but the losers are our children who will pay in shortened lives and suffering. In the debate about foods in schools, Senator Collins from potato-growing Maine argued that our country could not afford the cost of approximately one billion dollars a year to feed children healthy vegetables instead high-starch foods. This is amazingly short-sighted, because the costs of the obesity epidemic already raging in our children's generation will be many hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming decades. In reality, we can't afford a society burdened with disability at what should be productive ages and ever escalating medical costs.