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USDA 'Smart Snacks' Program May Lead to Students Eating Healthier, Study Suggests

Nov 13, 2013 10:23 PM EST

Ahead of upcoming changes to US Department of Agriculture guidelines on children's diet in school, a new study reports that when kids are presented only healthy food choices, they will respond by making making improvements in their diet.

The study, published in the journal Childhood Obesity, suggests that when schools offer snacks that were mostly or entirely healthful during lunchtime, in vending machines or a la carte, students' dietary habits will become healthier.

When healthful food options are offered, students will select them, eat them and improve their diet," said Katherine Alaimo, an associate professor of food, science and human nutrition at Michigan State University. "Our study shows that schools can make the kinds of changes required by the forthcoming USDA guidelines, and these changes can have a positive impact on children's nutrition."

In July of 2014, the USDA will ask American school to implement its "Smart Snacks in School" nutrition standards program. The program sets limits on calories, salt, sugar and fat in foods and beverages, as well as promote snack foods with more whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables. The program is the result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which required the USDA to establish nutritional standards for all food sold in schools, beyond the federally-supported meal programs.

The Michigan researchers tested standards similar to the USDA's new requirements, finding that students were keen to eat healthier, which they say suggests the Smart Snacks program has the potential to improve students' eating habits.

The researchers found that school that started a a healthy snacks program boosted students' "overall daily consumption of fruit by 26 percent, vegetables by 14 percent and whole grains by 30 percent. Students also increased their consumption of fiber, calcium, and vitamins A and C," the researchers wrote in a news release.

"Creating school environments where the healthy choice is the easy choice allows students to practice lessons learned in the classroom and form good habits at an early age, laying a foundation for a healthy future," said Shannon Carney Oleksyk, contributing author and healthy living adviser for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

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