How Bad Does Cafeteria Food Affect a Student's Health?

Cafeteria food does not have to have a negative effect on a student’s health. While a school cafeteria food line may contain a number of unhealthy choices, most school cafeterias do include nutritious foods as well. If you’re a student, the key to eating healthy is making better food choices and actually eating the healthy foods you choose. Making healthy food choices, however, is a lot to expect of students faced with tasty but non-nutritious choices right next to the healthy ones; most adults don’t do well at this either.


The United States Food and Drug Administration requirements for school lunch programs stresses that no more than 30 percent of calories should come from fats, with no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats. However, the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study for 2004 and 2005 showed that no more than 20 percent of schools met the dietary fat guidelines, while 70 percent exceeded the saturated fat guidelines. Saturated fat is the single largest contributor to high cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association 1.


Carbohydrates are not subject to regulations in the same way fats are in school lunches, but school cafeterias that offer fresh fruit for dessert instead of cake, whole wheat pasta and bread rather than refined grains, and raw or cooked vegetables like salad can help rather than hurt a student’s health 3. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain more of the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy.


Many schools have made menu changes to improve students' health, offering more salad choices, substituting baked foods for fried and switching from whole milk to low fat. Additionally, some colleges have eliminated trays from their cafeterias. While this was done primarily as a measure to cost costs on buying and washing trays, it also makes it more difficult for students to overload their trays with food that adds too many calories. Some schools have also decreased portion sizes, which helps reduce the total number of calories that are consumed.


School budgets often dictate using government surplus foods as part of their offerings, which the school can have converted by commercial processors into potentially unhealthy foods such as chicken nuggets, pork patties and pizza. Large corporations that offer financial incentives for selling their products -- which are rarely healthy food choices and generally contribute to obesity without adding any nutritional value-- make it hard for schools with strapped budgets to say no. If chips and snack foods -- which have calories but no nutrition -- are offered as part of the cafeteria lunch, students have a hard time turning them down.