Research Weighs in on Student Eating Habits

September 20, 2011

Students eat in a lunchroom cafeteria.

It’s an alarming trend. New studies show that one-third of all U.S. children are considered overweight or obese. These eye-popping figures have prompted many health professionals and educators to examine how aspects of school environments impact children’s dietary behavior and health. As part of the Rollins College Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program and Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Renewal Grant Program, professors Alice Davidson and Steven St. John recently teamed up with 12 undergraduate students and their grant research partners at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., to find out if a correlation exists between the length of lunch periods and eating habits.

“Our goal is to better understand the causes of childhood obesity and correct the mistakes we’re making when it comes to teaching our kids how and what to eat,” said Davidson. “It’s important to understand how various factors (the types of food they are being offered, how much time is allotted for lunch and how quickly they are eating) contribute to the problem.”

The Rollins research team observed students for a whole semester at three area schools — Edgewater High, Audubon Park Elementary and the Geneva School — while their partners at Millsaps did the same in Jackson. A total of more than 1,500 students were surveyed and analyzed at both long (minimum of 30 minutes) and short (25 minutes or less) lunch periods. Researchers documented what they ate, how long they ate, and also measured body fat and Body Mass Index (BMI).

“This information can positively affect school nutrition policies,” said Morgan Frost (Class of 2010), who helped collect data for the study. “If we can determine that school environments are conducive to poor eating habits, we can spread awareness and prompt administrators and parents to remedy the situation.”

Because children spend more than 900 hours a year in school, many of their lifestyle habits are developed within this environment. Given that they eat more than 180 lunches in a school year — and that these periods typically range from 15 to 60 minutes — there can be important implications for children’s nutritional health. Davidson feels the study will yield valuable information, and she touts the role of Rollins students in this kind of community-based research.

“These students not only participate in data collection, but they also spend hours training to become reliable coders beforehand,” she said. “They benefit personally from stepping outside the classroom to directly observe, record and think about the kinds of issues and challenges in our community.”

Food for Thought

The students surveyed in the Rollins study were on average about 20 percent overweight (compared to the national average of about 25 percent). Based on preliminary findings of the data, the study shows that:

• Regardless of lunch period length, students spent about the same amount of time actually eating (between 7 and 8 minutes).

• Short lunch periods seem to have the biggest impact on female students. High school girls who had less time to eat tended to have higher body fat percentages (30 percent) than those who had more time (20 percent). For males, body fat remained pretty steady.

“Most importantly, the study has motivated school administrators to think about ways to provide healthier options for their students,” said Lou Jones, RN, nurse at The Geneva School. “Childhood obesity is a multi-faceted issue, so both parents and educators need to work together to create a consistent environment for good eating. Studies like this bring much-needed attention to the issue.”

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