Recently a school district in Iowa published the results of a year-long program called “The Protein Intervention” that substituted protein-based snacks for the carbohydrate-based snacks typically given to hungry students. The selection of protein snacks included hard-boiled eggs, string cheese and yogurt. District staff hypothesized that snacks high in protein and low in sugar content might help improve classroom behavior and thereby increase the students’ potential for academic success. Program results appear to support this premise.
The Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in Scott County worked closely with one school to test this hypothesis in an area of the district that typically serves high-risk students. For one year, the school nurse offered protein-based snacks to students in need and monitored behavioral reports throughout the remaining school day. The Protein Intervention yielded a surprising correlation between the snacks and behavior that could prove beneficial to educators across the country. The report links protein-based snack consumption with improved classroom behavior within an at-risk student population.
The Need for High-Density Nutrition
The link between breakfast and academic performance, particularly in nutritionally compromised children, is well documented.1 However, little is known about the influence of snacking behavior on school performance. Often, schools stock highly palatable, inexpensive and shelf-stable snacks such as crackers, cereal, granola bars and fruit snacks for students in need. Such foods tend to contain added sugars and few nutrients, which conflicts with current dietary guidance that encourages nutrient-rich foods like produce, nuts and seeds, eggs and low-fat dairy.2
The program stemmed from a hypothesis that children from at-risk homes have elevated levels of cortisol,3 a stress hormone, that may impair the way the body metabolizes carbohydrates and lead to behavioral issues in the classroom. This school-wide intervention project intended to test whether nutrient-dense, protein-based snacks could prove beneficial to the behavior of students from this type of background.
The Protein Intervention
Teachers and staff introduced a pilot project for the 2015-2016 school year called The Protein Intervention. The school nurse stocked her refrigerator with high-protein, nutrient-rich foods including hard-boiled eggs, string cheese and yogurt, in lieu of carbohydrate-based snacks. When students complained of a headache, stomachache or hunger, they were offered one of these snacks. The overwhelming majority of students preferred hard-boiled eggs. The nurse took note of the student’s name, snack choice and date and time of the student’s visit.
Referrals for disruptive behavior were also tracked and compared against the snacking data. At the end of the school year, results showed that 89 percent of behavioral referrals occurred on days when a snack was not consumed. This suggests the snacks, which were high in protein, encouraged better behavior in the classroom. “We have hypothesized that this staggering difference results from alleviation of hunger with a high protein, low glycemic index food that offers healthy, sustained energy with minimal blood sugar fluctuations,” explained Jennifer Best, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
The results of this pilot project were so impressive that other schools have asked to participate in their own Protein Intervention trial. “We believe that with a systematic and sustained effort of offering protein within high-need schools, behavior issues can be reduced, resulting in less time spent out of the classroom and a higher likelihood of academic achievement,” said Best.
Approximately one thousand dollars will support the costs of the high-protein snacks for one school year at one school. In response to the pilot program’s successful results, the Iowa Egg Council is providing funds to support the program at one school within the area.
“Hard-boiled eggs are the perfect choice for a program like the Protein Intervention. Eggs contain less than one gram of carbohydrate and as such, do not influence blood glucose. In addition, eggs are a nutrient-rich food with one large egg containing six grams of high-quality protein and varying levels of 13 vitamins and minerals,” said Tia M. Rains, Ph.D., Executive Director, Egg Nutrition Center, the scientific research arm of the American Egg Board. “We look forward to results from other schools implementing the protein intervention program with their students to see if similar benefits are observed.”
To view and download the Protein Intervention Success Story press release click here
1. Hoyland A, Dye L, Lawton CL. A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents. Nutr Res Rev2009;22:220–43.
2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
3. Association for Psychological Science. (2010, January 21). Low socioeconomic status affects cortisol levels in children over time. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 6, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100119161805.htm