November 8, 2012

Give a Child an Orange...

When children were given easy or free access to fruit, they not only ate more healthy stuff, they ate fewer unhealthy snacks.

Children who are offered free fruit at school not only eat more fruit, they also appear to eat less junk food, according to a Norwegian study.

In some Norwegian schools, students can enroll in a national free school fruit program and get a piece of fruit every day, or parents can pay a fee to have fruit provided to their children. Both programs had proven to increase how much fruit a child ate, but researchers wanted to find out if the fruit replaced the consumption of unhealthy snacks.

They asked students to describe their snacking preferences, first in 2001, when the Fruits and Vegetables Make the Marks program was started, and then again in 2008. Nearly 1,500 sixth- and seventh-grade students completed an initial questionnaire about their fruit and snack consumption in 2001. Seven years later, just over 1,300 sixth- and seventh-grade students completed the same questionnaire.

Students who went to the schools offering a fruit program showed an even larger decline in the amount of junk food they consumed.

Students consumed an average of 6.6 unhealthy snacks per week, including soda, candy, and potato chips in 2001. By 2008, analysis of the students’ questionnaires revealed that children ate junk food only 4.4 times per week - a significant decrease.

Even more striking was the fact that students who went to the schools offering a fruit program showed an even larger decline in the amount of junk food they consumed, eating only 2.8 unhealthy snacks per week, compared to children who attended a school with no fruit program. Children in the school fruit program whose parents had no higher education went from eating 7.8 junk food snacks per week to 4.0 unhealthy snacks per week.

Fruit is high in fiber, is satisfying, and can decrease children’s hunger for junk food snacks. According to the USDA’s Choose My Plate initiative, middle school-age children should eat 1½ cups of fruit per day. One cup of fruit is roughly equal to a small (2 ½” diameter) apple, 32 seedless grapes, ½ cup raisins, or one 8-inch banana.

The study was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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