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Good economic status no guarantee of good nutritional health among kids

Study finds that even well-off kids don’t eat enough good foods.

The idea behind the study was relatively simple.

While there have been studies examining dietary deficiencies among children with relatively low socioeconomic statuses, Simone Frei noted that there have been few similar studies done in more prosperous and well-educated communities.

And Frei, the manager of the Healthy Youth Program at Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute, was familiar with one such community: Corvallis.

So Frei, working with Gerd Bobe, a principal investigator with the institute and an assistant professor of animal sciences at OSU, launched a study to look at children in four Corvallis elementary schools.

The results were surprising, and a little discouraging, in that they suggest that so-called “hidden hunger” — a term describing people suffering from deficiencies in key nutrients — is not limited to any particular socioeconomic group.

“I was very surprised,” said Bobe. Even in health-conscious and relatively prosperous Corvallis, the study showed that “still, kids are not consuming diets that are sufficient to meet their dietary needs.”

In the study, 175 children, ages 5 to 11, were asked to record their dietary intake during the previous week on a two-page questionnaire developed specifically for elementary students. In addition, blood samples were taken from 71 of the children to measure vitamin D levels. (The level of vitamin D in the blood is the best indicator for that nutrient because only some is derived from diet; most vitamin D is synthesized in the body upon exposure to the sun.)

Among the results: Sixty percent of the children aged 5 to 8 and 78 percent of the children aged 9 to 11 didn’t get enough fiber. More than 80 percent of the children ate diets too high in saturated fat and sodium.

Some 45 percent of the older children didn’t get enough calcium; this result wasn’t particularly surprising, because milk consumption tends to decline as children get older. Only 16 percent of the younger children weren’t getting enough calcium.

On the vitamin D front, 61 percent of the children had insufficient levels and 8 percent were considered deficient, a finding that jibes with national studies.

It’s easy to blame school lunch programs for some of these problems, but Frei and Bobe aren’t convinced that the criticism is justified:

“It’s part of a larger problem,” Frei said. “We just don’t value good-quality food enough.”

Besides, school lunch programs have been working hard over the last few years to include healthier options in their menus.

That doesn’t mean, however, that students are going to eat those healthier choices. Bobe pointed to a recent study in Boston that suggested the scope of the problem: Some 73 percent of vegetables were discarded by students, the study found, and extrapolated that could mean the national loss from discarded food in school lunch programs could top $1 billion.

“The cheap foods are eaten,” he said. “The expensive foods go in the garbage can.”

But Frei said some evidence suggests that students involved in school gardens are more likely to eat vegetables — but she added that there’s a need for additional research on this and related points.

What can parents do?

Simone Frei and Gerd Bobe of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University offer hints for parents who want their children to eat better:

• Be a role model. If kids don’t see you eating vegetables, they won’t either.

• Don’t neglect the social side of mealtime: “I think eating together is a very nurturing process,” Frei said.

• Talk to your pediatrician about the possibility of adding a multivitamin to your children’s nutritional regimen.

• If your child decides to bring a lunch to school, make sure it has some nutritional value. “Sometimes, it’s really unhealthy what they bring,” Frei said.

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