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What's in a Meal?

Thursday, December 12, 2013 - Campus News - Contact Theresa Green, (405) 833-9824

What's for lunch?

That question gets asked a lot every day by adults, by children, and by Dr. Susan B. Sisson and graduate student Ashley Frampton at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Both are especially interested in what's being served to children at Oklahoma's child care centers.

"Kids are spending a substantial amount of time in child care," Sisson said. "They're getting at least lunch, oftentimes breakfast, and one or two snacks per day."

Sisson is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the OU College of Allied Health and director of the Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity Laboratory. In addition to her graduate studies, Frampton is a dietitian in the Department of Pediatrics at OU Medicine in Tulsa.  

Both know adequate and appropriate nutrition is critical for a child's health and development. Ensuring children eat nutritious meals is important everywhere, but Sisson said especially in Oklahoma where the obesity level among children is higher than the national average. Because so many children between the ages of 2 and 5 spend so much time at day cares, knowing what they are eating while there is important.  

Sisson produced an earlier study of child care practices relating to healthy eating at the state's child care centers, a study that relied upon self-reporting by child care center officials. This latest study goes a step further.

"With this study the difference is, we evaluated what they had on their actual menu -- one full week of lunches -- and we entered that into our nutrient software," Sisson says. "The analysis tells us the number of calories and the percentage of carbohydrates and fact the kids were being served." 

Sisson and Frampton examined lunch menus from 83 child care centers, in both urban and rural areas, across Oklahoma. They calculated the nutrient levels of the foods in those menus and then compared them to a national measure known as Dietary Reference Intakes. The research brought mixed results.

"The child care menus were providing adequate amounts of some nutrients but not enough of other nutrients," Sisson said.

She said the menu nutritional analysis revealed adequate amounts of protein, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, vitamin A and calcium in the meals served at state child care centers. However, they were lacking when it came to the amount of carbohydrates, fiber, iron, vitamin D and vitamin E.

Overall, Sisson said Oklahoma child cares are making passing grades when it comes to childhood nutrition. In fact, if pressed, she might give them a B minus, but she said the team's research shows there is definitely room for improvement. 

Sisson and her team now plan to take their research on the road. Their newest research involves visiting child care centers across Oklahoma. During those visits, they will personally inspect what's for lunch and then evaluate how it stacks up nutritionally. 

The latest OU child care nutrition research is published in this week's online issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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