The debate over junk food in schools continues to rage in states across the country. Advocates for banning junk food in school districts just got a boost from a recent study that shows laws restricting high-calorie, low-nutrition foods in schools may contribute to lower obesity rates in students. The recently published study suggests that stronger restrictions on the food and beverages served in public schools may indeed contribute to the overall health of the school’s student population.
About the Study
The New York Times reports that the study, which was recently published in the journal “Pediatrics,” found a compelling link between laws restricting junk food sold in vending machines at school and obesity rates for that particular student population. The study tracked 63,000 students over a three-year period. While researchers who completed the study said the positive outcomes among students were still relatively small, the evidence suggests that stricter guidelines on school food offerings could actually curb the youth obesity epidemic currently faced by the United States.
Students were evaluated between fifth grade and eighth grade. The study encompassed 40 states nationwide, ensuring the student populations were accurately represented. Weight changes among students were compared between states that have laws against junk food and sugary beverages in school vending machines, and those that did not. The study also classified laws governing food selections in schools; strong laws were those that completely restricted the sale of junk food and sugary beverages, while weak laws merely offered nutrition recommendations without making any hard and fast requirements.
According to a report at CBS News, students who lived in states with strong laws restricting junk food distribution in schools gained less weight over that three-year period than those who did not have similar laws in place. In addition, the students who were considered overweight or obese at the beginning of the study were more likely to achieve a healthy weight within that same three-year time frame if strong laws were in place. While these results sound impressive, it is important to note that the difference in weight gain was just over two pounds across the board. This is not a significant factor, but still enough to suggest that tougher laws may be a step in the right direction.
“This is the first real evidence that the laws are likely to have an impact,” Dr. Virginia Stallings, director of the nutrition center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia told CBS. Although Dr. Stallings was not directly involved in this recent research, she has headed up a panel at the Institute of Medicine that advocated for standards for healthier food and beverage choices in school.
Dr. David Ludwig, obesity specialist at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital agreed. Dr. Ludwig asked CBS, “What are the downsides of improving the food environment for children today? You can’t get much worse than it already is.”
The Herald Tribune reports that at the beginning of the study, approximately 39 percent of the students in states with strong laws were overweight. By the time these students reached eighth grade, that number had fallen to 34 percent. The number of obese students in those states fell from 21 percent in fifth grade to 18 percent by eighth grade.
In the states without any sort of legal restrictions, around 37percent of fifth graders were overweight and 21 percent were considered obese. Those figures did not change between fifth and eighth grade in those states. The authors did account for location, race and gender when analyzing their data throughout the study. The study did not state that the laws were directly responsible for improved outcomes among the students studied.
“The challenge is that there are a great many factors that coalesce to influence body weight,” Dr. Ludwig explained to the Washington Post. “Disentangling these influences and looking at the independent effects of just one is a methodological nightmare.”
However, the study does assert that outcomes were better in states that had adopted strong laws. However, researchers also pointed out that they controlled many of the other variables that may have contributed to the results, leaving somewhat substantial results that should be considered in future laws involving food choices in public schools.
States Restricting Food Choices
The Washington Post reports that the adoption of laws involving food choices in schools is a relatively new development that has primarily budded over the past decade. In 2003, 27 of the states included in this study did not have any sort of laws regarding the types of foods and beverages middle schools were allowed to sell. However, as concerns over increasing obesity rates continued to rise, more states began enacting laws over the next few years.
Obesity is a serious and ongoing problem in the U.S. CBS News cites statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show nearly 20 percent of elementary-age students across the country are considered obese. Since 1980, the number of overweight children has tripled across the country. The U.S. government has attempted to address this issue from a number of angles. The National School Lunch and Breakfast programs recently introduced changes to a healthier fare that includes more whole grains and fruits and vegetables.
Still, this study seems to suggest that more can be done to keep children healthier – at least while they are in school. By toughening up laws on what can be sold in public schools, legislators may be able to take another step toward a healthier student population overall. (And for those who need more evidence regarding the link between food and students, read our article on how diet choices impact a child's learning ability.)
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