Yet Another Benefit of Homeschooling

Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services (Kevin Concannon) has lunch with schoolchildren on October 12, 2011. The study being discussed shows that lunch is when traditionally-schooled children eat less healthy foods than homeschooled children. (click for credit)

I have written several articles on the academic benefits of homeschooling (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). However, the benefits go far beyond academics. Homeschooled students are, on average, better socialized than their peers. They are more actively engaged in their faith than their peers, and they are more satisfied with life than their peers.1 They even sleep better than their peers!

Adding to that list of benefits, a recent study shows that homeschooled children are less likely to be obese than their peers.2 The study compared 47 homeschooled and 48 traditionally-school children, age 7-12. They measured the children’s fat mass, trunk fat, total body fat, and physical activity. They also asked the children what they had been eating. The researchers found that the homeschooled children had lower values in all three fat measurements. In addition, the homeschooled children reported better diets. As the title of the article aptly puts it:

Home-schooled children are thinner, leaner, and report better diets relative to traditionally schooled children

What was the main difference between the eating habits of the two groups? Not surprisingly, it was lunch. The traditionally-schooled children ate a lot more calories, sodium, and sugar at lunch than the homeschooled children did. Since lunch is the most likely meal to be eaten at school, the take-home message here is that the traditionally-schooled children are not being fed poorly by their parents. They are being fed poorly by their school.

Now this isn’t surprising to me at all. On average, parents are significantly better caregivers for their children than any government entity. However, it was surprising to some, including the study’s lead author! She said:

Based on previous research, we went into this study thinking home-schooled children would be heavier and less active than kids attending traditional schools…We found the opposite.

I am not sure what “previous research” she is referring to, but I can’t imagine anyone who is familiar with home education thinking that homeschooled children would be heavier and less active than traditionally-schooled children. Homeschooled children are fed every meal by people who love them and want the very best for them. In addition, homeschooling parents typically make a lot of financial sacrifices to homeschool their children, so in the end, they have less money than parents who send their children to school. As a result, they have to be more frugal in their meals, and that usually leads to healthier eating habits.

Now there was one surprising result in the study. The researchers saw no real difference in activity level between the two groups. Since homeschoolers are so efficient in their education, most homeschoolers get through more education than traditional schools in a significantly shorter amount of time. As a result, I would think that homeschooled children have more time to run and play than traditionally-schooled children. However, the study says there is no real difference in their activity levels, so traditionally-schooled children must play harder during recess and after school to make up for the extra sitting they do during the school day.

I do hope more studies are done on homeschooling and health, because based on my experience, I would expect homeschooled children to be significantly healthier than their traditionally-schooled peers. Not only do they eat better (as this study shows), but they also aren’t around nearly as many germs. In addition, they are probably under less daily stress. I would expect these differences to lead to noticeably healthier children in the homeschooled population.


1. Brian Ray, Home Educated and Now Adults:Their Community and Civic Involvement, Views About Homeschooling, and Other Traits, NHERI Publications, 2004
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2. Michelle Cardel, Amanda L. Willig, Akilah Dulin-Keita, Krista Casazza, Andrea Cherrington, Thrudur Gunnarsdottir, Susan L. Johnson, John C. Peters, James O. Hill, David B. Allison, and José R. Fernández, “Home-schooled children are thinner, leaner, and report better diets relative to traditionally schooled children,” Obesity DOI:10.1002/oby.20610, 2013
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20 thoughts on “Yet Another Benefit of Homeschooling”

  1. “Not only do they eat better (as this study shows), but they also aren’t around nearly as many germs.”

    I do not necessarily agree that just because kids are around less germs they will be healthier. Yes they might be less sick in the short run by not being exposed to germs from the populous, but in the long run they would suffer from not building up their immunities. Of course it is impossible to build up an immunity to rapidly mutating pathogens such as the “common cold”, but my point still stands.

    A similar problem occurs when parents use anti-bacterial cleaners excessively in their houses while their children are growing up. They may think they are protecting them but instead will most likely give their kids asthma.

    Your thoughts?

    1. You are certainly correct, Aaron, that a too-sterile environment can be bad for a child’s health. As a result, over-use of antibacterial soap and the like can be bad. However, I disagree that being around the germs carried by others can be good for you. If the germ is in another person and is contagious, it is likely to be a strong pathogen, and the mode of contagion usually exposes the child to a more significant health threat. For example, if you get exposed to bacteria by digging in the dirt or eating something tainted with the bacterium, it is often the case that the strain of bacteria to which you are exposed is not strongly pathogenic. As a result, your immune system doesn’t have to work hard to kill it, and in the process, you develop immunity to other, more potent strains of the bacterium. If the bacterial infection is strong enough in another child to be contagious, your immune system will probably have a harder task in killing it. Also, even if you get exposed to a strongly pathogenic bacterium by digging in the dirt or eating, your skin defenses and stomach acid will kill a lot of them before they get into your system. As a result, your immune system won’t have to take down as many. You will develop immunity, but from a less severe infection. If you get exposed to that same bacterium because you are near someone who coughs, the exposure is through your respiratory system, which has fewer defenses. As a result, your immune system has to work harder against the same bacterium.

  2. The one minor quibble I would have with your comments is the statement that being frugal can lead to healthier eating. I’ve found that we have a harder time eating healthy when we have fewer financial resources. I tend to load my family up on rice and other carbs when we’re on a tight budget. We don’t buy packaged junk food but they don’t get enough protein when things are tight.

    1. I guess my experience is different, Judith. When my wife and I had less money, we ate more healthy foods. We cooked a lot more from scratch, and we ate more vegetables, which were much cheaper than most fatty foods. The more money we got, the more we started eating packaged foods and fatty foods.

  3. Quite interesting. It is more likely the kind of people who choose to homeschool that gives homeschooling its characteristics. The style of education may have its influences on lifestyle but could hardly account for all of the diversity of differences between it and conventional schooling. Home-education generally seems to be an outgrowth of a deeper worldview transcending academic concerns. Rather than health being a “benefit” of homeschooling, I would call both health and homeschooling practices of a Christian worldview. Care for the body is as much a parent’s duty by God’s command as care for the soul and the mind.

    I have observed that though healthy foods are comparatively more expensive than hyper-processed foods, the practice of preparing food from scratch makes it easier to eliminate additives and utilize wholesome raw ingredients, and it can be more efficient at the same time. So Jay and Judith are both right!

    1. Caleb, I don’t think your explanation is correct. Remember, the study actually found where the students were eating poorly – it was at lunch. Most of the traditionally-schooled students were getting their lunches at the school. Thus, the type of schooling does play a direct role in obesity.

  4. I think there is a ‘money balance’ where we find the best eating and diet habits. Too little, and we use a lot of fillers. Too much, and we are lazy and buy prepackaged. It makes me think of the verse in Proverbs 30:

    “give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
    Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
    Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonour the name of my God.”

    A good prayer for each of us.

  5. This is interesting because the results seem to be directly related to being *at home.*

    Most statistics I’ve seen about homeschooling are about the academic achievements. However, I wonder how homeschoolers fare compared to traditionally-schooled children of single-income households where one parent stays home full-time or nearly full-time (as this is the situation for the vast majority of homeschool families). Do you know of any such studies?

    A 15-yr homeschool veteran with another 12 years ahead of me 🙂

    1. I don’t know of any such studies, Jennifer, but they would be interesting. I can say that unless the full-time or nearly full-time mothers packed lunches for their children, the results of this particular study wouldn’t change substantially. As I pointed out to Caleb, the study shows that a large portion of the problem is with lunch, which is eaten at school.

  6. Jay, even if parents were packing lunch for their children, they are likely eating less healthy at school than at home.

    One of our early issues with my daughter’s public school is that the children were given just 20 minutes to eat lunch–and they were delayed if even one child were not behaving in line. The whole class would lose some of that time. Kids were also in a hurry to eat, because they wanted to go play–another activity which was strictly timed.

    Additionally, kids may be under more pressure at school to not eat “cool” foods. (“Ew, what is THAT?”)

    Lastly, from personal experience, it is far easier to prepare a fresh lunch meal for my children than it ever was to plan ahead and pack food that would appeal to my child after sitting in a lunch bag for several hours.

    And since you and I are the same age, I feel I must add that at least they aren’t counting ketchup as a vegetable! While I believe it never got past the proposal stage, we’ll never forget!

    1. That’s an excellent point, Kristine! It is much easier to make a healthy lunch at home that to pack one that will be eaten several hours later. I think the peer pressure point is also a good one. Peer pressure influences everything, even what a child eats.

      As I recall, the only reason the ketchup = vegetable serving didn’t get past the proposal stage was it came to light before it could be voted on. I thought it was particularly bad, because even back then, I knew that tomatoes are fruits!

  7. We agree. I seek to answer why the school feeds a poorer diet. It reflects a system of poorer values, or else poorer economy. Merely being at home does not guarantee a better diet. The underlying factor for the homeschoolers’ success in this area is the worldview they hold. Theoretically, public schools could serve good food, but their anti-family worldview prevents it; the very idea of a public school is anti-family.

    Forgive me if I seem to strain at a gnat.

    1. Caleb, I would think schools serve bad food because they realize they have to provide something most kids will eat. So they sacrifice nutrition for appeal. In the end, when a parent is serving just his or her family, the parent can usually find something healthy that everyone will eat, or the parent can just make the kids eat what’s good for them. The school can’t do that.

  8. “However, the study says there is no real difference in their activity levels, so traditionally-schooled children must play harder during recess and after school to make up for the extra sitting they do during the school day.”

    What do you think the researchers mean by “activity level?” As a 23+ year veteran of homeschooling, I would say that my children probably do much less sitting per school day than do their traditionally schooled friends. I don’t think they play any harder, I think they just have more non-sitting time per school day.

    1. Good question, S. J. The researchers put an accelerometer on each child for seven days. This device essentially measures movement. It doesn’t measure movement at constant speed, but people rarely move at a constant speed, so it is generally thought to be a good way to determine how much a child is moving each day.

  9. As a former public school teacher the first thing that came to mind when I read this article was not the lack of nutrition in school lunches but the lack of supervision. Goodness knows the government is pushing hard for “healthy” foods in school (as healthy as mass produced, processed, bulk packaged foods can be). However, when a child is given a tray of food to choose from, a limited time to eat, and no one to encourage healthy eating habits….they will inevitably eat the hamburger and French fries (and the ice cream if their parents gave them money to buy a little something extra) and dump the green beans and apple in the trash can as they rush out of the lunch room. So, as I see it, one of the benefits of homeschooling my children is modeling and guiding them to make healthy choices in life.

  10. Under the methods section, the study says, “All TSC had eaten a school lunch for their lunchtime meal (which included anything that was purchased at school, including NSLP meals, competitive foods, and a la carte items).” (2).

    I think this is saying that in this study no one brought their lunch from home(?). That’s really interesting to me, since I believe there could be something still different about the group of kids that go to a traditional school, but yet their parents still pack their lunch. Obviously, there are still many other factors at play, such as no supervision over what is actually eaten and availability of other foods, but it would still be interesting to compare this third group (if it exists, that is) to both the TSC and the HSC.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out Rebecca. You are correct that all the traditionally-schooled children ate school lunches. When I brought up packing a lunch, it was a hypothetical in response to Jennifer’s comment. I wasn’t referring to this study.

      I would agree that a packed lunch could be healthier than a school lunch, but as Kristine pointed out, an at-home lunch would still probably be healthier, because it is easier to incorporate fresh fruits and veggies at home than in a packed lunch that sits unrefrigerated until noon.

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