School lunches are like dieting: Healthy changes only pay off with persistence

Making healthier changes to school lunch policies is similar to the battle an individual endures when starting a new diet. It’s unpleasant and unpopular at first, but worth it if you stick with it.

That’s why it was so disheartening to see the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) release its interim final rule Nov. 29, which delayed requirements for healthier school meals introduced in the Obama era. The new plan will put the old guidelines’ sodium reduction targets on hold, allow for more foods that aren’t whole-grain rich and enable schools to serve low-fat flavored milk (i.e., chocolate) when currently they can only serve nonfat flavored milk, nonfat unflavored milk and low-fat unflavored milk. The interim rule will take affect for the 2018-19 school year.

The USDA framed these changes as providing “flexibility,” and School Nutrition Association president Lynn Harvey said, “some school nutrition professionals continue to report challenges with sodium and whole grain mandates.”

“Based on the feedback we’ve gotten from students, schools, and food service professionals in local schools across America, it’s clear that many still face challenges incorporating some of the meal pattern requirements,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “Schools want to offer food that students actually want to eat. It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can.”

American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown took issue with this reasoning, saying the new rule “deserves an ‘F’” and disputing the notion that schools are struggling to meet the requirements.

“In the last five years, nearly 100 percent of the nation’s participating schools have complied with updated school meal standards,” Brown said in a press release. “Kids across the country have clearly benefited from these changes. Their meals have less salt, sugar and saturated fat, and they eat 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit. Why would the USDA want to roll back the current standards and reverse this excellent progress?”

I side with Brown on this issue. School nutrition professionals probably do get complaints from students who would prefer a tray full of salty and greasy content, but tastes aren’t changed overnight.

I say this as a 28-year-old who is seeing a steady drop in my weight for the first time, well … ever. It’s also the first time I’ve adhered to a diet for more than a week or two.

And those first two weeks were difficult, to be sure. I loaded my “cheat days” with calories as if I’d never see tasty food again—pancakes followed by Thai takeout and then deep-dish pizza … and maybe a half-pint of ice cream for dessert. I took it personally if a french fry was in front of me instead of already in my belly.

But the longer I’ve progressed in my diet, which began in August, the less likely I’ve become to stack unhealthy meals on top of each other. I still enjoy those tastes but my body—now accustomed to fruit and lean proteins—reacts less favorably to binges. I find myself feeling more bloated than I did pre-diet and actually wanting to return to “diet food.”

I’ve shed 18 pounds in less than five months simply by changing the way I eat and controlling portions. I share this not to brag about my newfound discipline, but to show the results of finally sticking with a plan.

Without long-term persistence—to either a personal diet or a widespread school lunch program—it’s easy to slip back into old habits and erase any progress. Let’s hope policymakers can correct this interim rule in future versions and return our nation’s children to a healthier trajectory.