Where Can I Get a Chicken Nugget?

by Drew Heyding on February 23, 2012

When my wife first met me, she quickly pointed out that barbecue potato chips and hot pockets probably shouldn’t be dietary staples. How, she asked, could I go to work every day and counsel patients on health eating without feeling like fraud? I’ve made great strides over the last few years at making better food choices. I would never claim to have an ideal diet, but it’s much better than it was.

Centers for Disease Control

These days I also have to pay attention to what my kids are eating. My daughter in particular is partial to some less than nutritious foods like chicken nuggets. I’m not sure what it is about those things, but she can’t get enough of them (like most of the world’s toddler population apparently).

With healthy eating in mind, my wife and I paid attention to menus when we started looking for a daycare last summer. Food options weren’t the only (or even the main) factor we considered. Still it would have been hard to ignore some of the less desirable menus. One daycare we visited, for instance, had a standing weekly menu that included the ever popular chicken nuggets along with macaroni and cheese. On the day of our visit lunch was arriving – in the form of a stack of take out pizzas.

Given the increasing rates of obesity among children and adolescents, emphasizing nutritious food options in school settings has been an important area of research and policy focus. A recent headline in the New York Times suggests that the efforts may be misdirected. Maybe chicken nuggets at daycare aren’t so bad.

The Times headline “No Obesity Link to Junk Food in Schools” highlights the conclusions of a study published last summer in the journal Sociology of Education. The study tried to find evidence of a relationship between access to junk foods like soft drinks, candy bars and potato chips at school and obesity (as measured by body mass index). Based on the data analysis, the authors concluded that kids in schools where junk food was readily available did not have more weight gain overall between fifth and eighth grade than kids in schools without junk foods.

Several factors could explain these results. Prior studies that had shown a link between junk food and weight had small samples and were cross-sectional, meaning they only looked at one point in time and compared junk food availability in a school to student weights in a school. This recent study is larger (around 11,000 kids were included), and it is longitudinal. By looking at data over several years, the authors suggest they were better able to assess for a possible cause and effect link between junk food and weight gain.

Why didn’t the study find evidence of a link? The authors point out that calories from junk food consumed at school may replace and not supplement calories eaten outside of school. Also, since the students were in middle school, another contributing factor may have been the structured class schedule that limited time available to purchase and consume junk food.

Probably most importantly, the authors note that there are so many opportunities for kids to eat unhealthy foods at home and in their community that junk food at school just isn’t as important in the scheme of things.

Now this study looked at middle school students, so we may not be able to apply the conclusions to other age groups.  Also it looks at the impact of “competitive” food, meaning food that is available for purchase to kids that is not included in the regular school food menu (these menus must meet certain nutrition guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

So clearly the study is not directly relevant to my daycare lunch menu situation. What I did take away is another point brought up by the authors to help explain their findings. They emphasize that from a developmental perspective, weight trajectories are already firmly established by the time kids reach middle school. Early childhood is really the time when dietary habits are beginning to form. So even if my daughter just wants to eat chicken nuggets, at least I can make sure she’s got other options when she gets to daycare everyday.