Nutrition: School Wellness

Energy-Dense Foods

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Energy-dense foods are those that are high in sugar, salt, and fats with little to no vitamin, mineral, or fiber content for the volume. Other characteristics of high energy-dense food include the presence of additives, preservatives, and coloring agents.

Research suggests that these foods are contributing to the sharp rise in obesity and healthcare costs in the United States.

Nutritionally poor foods are widely available in schools across the nation. According to a 2001 Journal of School Health, 83% of elementary schools, 97% of middle/junior high schools, and 99% of senior high schools sell foods and beverages out of vending machines, school stores, or a la carte in the cafeteria.

The most common of these foods include soft drinks, sports drinks, imitation fruit juices, chips, candy, cookies, and snack cakes. Chances are a food is high energy-dense if one of the first two ingredients on the label is a fat or sugar.

One dilemma schools have in addressing high energy-dense foods in their wellness policies are the revenues generated from the contracts they have with soft drink companies and snack food vendors.

Exclusive pouring rights can net up to as much as $100,000 a year for a school district. This can pay for computers, teachers, and sports equipment.

Another issue is recognizing that a food can have nutritional benefits while also being high in fat, sugar, or salt. For example, ounce for ounce a chocolate milk shake may be as rich in calcium as a glass of 1% milk but the milk shake can have ten times the sugar and fat.

Finally, schools are competing against multi-million dollar advertising campaigns that market high energy-dense food to children. Schools are under the impression that they would lose money if they tried to offer healthier food choices and these unhealthy foods are a necessary evil.

According to studies conducted at the Center for Disease Control, schools that substitute healthy foods for less healthy foods see a drop in revenue at first but then see revenues climb back up after a year or two.

The solution may lay in policy and environmental changes that support nutrition education, decreased screen time, and improved access to healthier choices.

Updated Wednesday, October 08, 2014 at 11:37AM