Study: Kids slimmer in states with limits on school snacking

A new study suggests a link between limits on school snacking and weight gain in students. (AP Images.)

A new study suggests a link between limits on school snacking and weight gain in students. (AP Images.)

A new study may tip the balance in the debate over whether stricter school nutrition and vending machine policies can play a role in combating the growing childhood obesity problem in this country.

The study found that kids in states in which laws have been enacted limiting snack and soft drink sales in schools gained less weight in a three-year time frame than their peers in states where no such laws have been passed or where the laws are weak.  (The literature now refers to those vending machine snacks and drinks as “competitive” foods in that they compete with the healthier fare that schools offer at lunch.)

While the study doesn’t prove a link between healthier weights in adolescents and fewer unhealthy snacks in schools, it suggests a strong correlation.

Daniel Taber, a fellow at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Chicago and one of the study authors, told The New York Times: “Competitive-food laws can have an effect on obesity rates if the laws are specific, required and consistent.”

On this blog, we have often debated whether the push to rid schools of sugary soft drinks, bakes sales and donuts is an effective tool to counter the childhood obesity epidemic. Many posters maintain that the school has students a few hours a day, so any meaningful change in their diet has to begin at home where eating habits are formed.

According to The New York Times:

The study, published Monday in Pediatrics, found a strong association between healthier weight and tough state laws regulating food in vending machines, snack bars and other venues that were not part of the regular school meal programs.

The conclusions are likely to further stoke the debate over what will help reduce obesity rates, which have been rising drastically in the United States since the 1980s. So far, very little has proved effective and rates have remained stubbornly high. About a fifth of American children are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study tracked weight changes for 6,300 students in 40 states between 2004 and 2007, following them from fifth to eighth grade. They used the results to compare weight change over time in states with no laws regulating such food against those in states with strong laws and those with weak laws.

Researchers used a legal database to analyze state laws. Strong laws were defined as those that set out detailed nutrition standards. Laws were weak if they merely offered recommendations about foods for sale, for example, saying they should be healthy but not providing specific guidelines.

The study stopped short of saying the stronger laws were directly responsible for the better outcomes. It concluded only that such outcomes tended to happen in states with stronger laws, but that the outcomes were not necessarily the result of those laws. However, researchers added that they controlled for a number of factors that would have influenced outcomes.

Still, the correlation was substantial, researchers said, suggesting that the laws might be a factor. Students who lived in states with strong laws throughout the entire three-year period gained an average of 0.44 fewer body mass index units, or roughly 2.25 fewer pounds for a 5-foot-tall child, than adolescents in states with no policies.

The study also found that obese fifth graders who lived in states with stronger laws were more likely to reach a healthy weight by the eighth grade than those living in states with no laws. Students exposed to weaker laws, however, had weight gains that were not different from those of students in states with no laws at all.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

33 comments Add your comment

Progressive Humanist

August 13th, 2012
9:47 am

I’d like to see the actual list of states and the respective weight gains. I predict there are other correlations present, such as a negative correlation between weight gain and academics and a positive correlation between weight gain and red states.


August 13th, 2012
9:48 am

Since most overweight kids are on food stamps, wouldnt they receive free meals at school. Three of them correct? Then they go home and eat. Now I am counting kids eating four times a day with no school activity because progressive liberals have outlawed dodge ball, tag, and other sports for exercise. Hey but I am not a major college graduate so I got to be stupid.


August 13th, 2012
10:21 am

Snack machines are a source of income for schools. Sad, but true.


August 13th, 2012
10:25 am

As someone who had ample choices for food in junior high and high school…I support cutting out the junk. I made TERRIBLE decisions as teen – and I was one who has always been big in keeping fit, I just didn’t think much about what foods I was putting into my body. I really don’t want my son to eat as crappily as I did when he is a teen – and at that age long term health issues are the furthest thing from your mind.

Holly Jones

August 13th, 2012
10:30 am

I agree that long-term changes in diet have to begin at home, but limiting kids’ access to junk food in school can’t hurt. The only reason it’s there is as a money-maker for the schools. Weaning the schools off those funds will be as hard as listening to the kids whine about not getting a Coke. When I taught, keeping those machines turned off except at lunch period never happened and it was a constant battle with the kids about bringing food into my classroom. I never knew what the money was spent on- not even the money from the faculty lounge machines that was supposed to be used for us teachers.

If we’re not going to encourage walking or biking to school and if we’re going to continue to cut physical activity out of the school day, then we also need to ditch the junk food machines.

Old timer

August 13th, 2012
10:31 am

Snack and drink machines provide a lot of money for schools. I worked in a HS that e en scheduled a break for buying snacks and drinks.
In Clayton County, when I worked there all machines at our MS were locked till after school. Kids just brought the junk in with them…..huge amounts to supplement their free lunch. And yes, many of these kids were overweight and u healthy……

bootney farnsworth

August 13th, 2012
10:32 am

God, I hate nanny state crap.

-freedom of choice means sometimes people make stupid choices. fat,drunk and stupid IS no way to go thru life, but if they make the choice.

-considering the crap I was fed when I was in school, if I’d had the option I’d have hit the snack machine, too.

-to a degree this is what comes of eliminating PE and competition in sports. if don’t have an incentive to get up, you wont.

-students on state meal plans should be given a healthy diet with no options. if the state (me) is paying for the meal, make it a healthy one. options go out the window when you’re not paying

at what point will the state and many of the population, stop trying to enforce ITS morality on everyone else?

bootney farnsworth

August 13th, 2012
10:34 am

@ progressive

if you really want a demographic break down, try looking at voters, not states.


August 13th, 2012
11:14 am

I wonder what would happen if schools actually had a valid PE class where they exercised and the PE teachers honestly graded the students. Where I taught the kids could go into any year long program and avoid PE (as low quality as it is) and Health. Most of these were neither slim nor in any kind of shape. When I had PE in school we had to run and exercise everyday. We word gym uniforms and showered after every PE class. We also learned gymnastics, trampoline, climbing, soccer, etc. Now the coaches hand some kids a basketball and let them play and let the rest sit on the bleachers for the class period. NoMaybe the problem is not the snack machines but the way that schools do business. Now kids come back to class sweaty wearing the same clothes they played disorganized basketball and then sharing a smelly deodorant stick to try and mask the smell. Yes, maybe it is not the snack machines.


August 13th, 2012
11:15 am

Apologies for the grammar errors. It makes me angry when people have agendas that try to fix symptoms and not the real problem.

anon teacher

August 13th, 2012
11:38 am

At the elementary school I used to teach at, the kids had recess 10 minutes A WEEK. I had to take a timer out because it hit the fan if I got caught going over my time. BTW, that ten minutes included water and bathrooms. Also, we sold candy every day. The principal put it into a fund for special things. I was in a low income area, 100% free lunch. It is ridiculous what we are doing to our kids.


August 13th, 2012
11:39 am

maybe just pass a law so that you have to be under a certain weight to access the vending machines. no reason the skinny kids shouldnt be allowed a honey bun every now and then.

Happy St. Pat's

August 13th, 2012
11:46 am

One important possible confound is that states which pass strong competitive food laws may also be states where better health attitudes prevail–that is, people in those states may be more inclined to healthier eating, anyway. Better health attitudes could explain both why kids there gain less weight and why legislatures there pass laws favoring healthier eating in schools.
It’s hard for me to see laws about healthy eating in school as an attack on personal freedom. It’s more a reinforcement of the notion that educators are responsible for the kids who are entrusted to them.

Ole Guy

August 13th, 2012
11:55 am

Howbout we find out who the bills’authors, in these other states, were, hook em’up with their counterparts in (what passes as) the Ga Legislature, and, before they explain, to the people of Georgia just exactly why they have not taken the initiative to even consider such a far-reaching bill, they just might learn something from other states’ lawmakers who actually care. Sometimes it takes a little public embarrasement…

Rik Roberts

August 13th, 2012
12:05 pm

I agree that there is probably a correlation to healthy attitudes about food in states that have strong laws and has not much to do with snack availability. Can’t parents still send unhealthy lunches or are those being monitored too? I remember kids freezing cans of Coke and bringing them in their lunch boxes. Also, is 2.5lbs over 3 years really that big of a correlation?

Holly Jones

August 13th, 2012
12:10 pm

@Bootney, yes freedom of choice means you can make bad choices, but we are all paying for these particular bad choices. The American diet- not just kids, but everyone- is horrible. We don’t know what a normal portion size is; we eat more processed foods than we should; and we don’t move enough. Thus, we have chronic health issues that are driving all of our healthcare costs up. It is the schools’ responsibility not to enable bad choices.

“In loco parentis”- “In place of the parent” ( I probably misspelled the Latin)- is a phrase used to describe the school’s role when the kids are there. If the parents don’t make good choices at home, at least the schools can show the kids that there is another way. And this doesn’t just apply to food.


August 13th, 2012
12:26 pm

I lost 60 lbs in 6 months this year by cutting off fast food, sodas, junk food, beer and I started walking regularly. I went from “obese” to “normal” on the BMI charts while losing nearly 1/3 of my body weight. It really wasn’t that hard. I guess the diet industry makes billions per year off of weak-willed people.

Howard Finkelstein

August 13th, 2012
12:30 pm

Whats to debate? Vending machines should have never been allowed in schools.


August 13th, 2012
12:38 pm

no vending machines….interesting idea. doubt it’ll fly. too much money involved

mountain man

August 13th, 2012
12:47 pm

In danger of making the old adage come true:

There are two kinds of fools. One says this is old and therefore good. The other says this is new and therefore better.

I am the first kind of fool – get rid of vending machines, bring back recess and PE and bring back showering after PE. God knows what this will result in.

Eddie G

August 13th, 2012
1:08 pm

It’s pretty stupid that the schools are required to only have diet colas, water, or sports drinks in the vending machines, but in the snack machine, there can be a 500 calorie super duper honey bun. Really?


August 13th, 2012
1:15 pm

I don’t have a problem with vending machines with healthy options accessible after school only. Some healthy foods DO taste good. I wonder if the states with the stronger laws also require more education in regards to healthy eating and tying in what can happen when you don’t eat well. There is much more to healthy eating than just maintaining weight.


August 13th, 2012
1:44 pm

maybe just pass a law so that you have to be under a certain weight to access the vending machines. no reason the skinny kids shouldn’t be allowed a honey bun every now and then.

And this is the problem with ALL food bans and limits designed at reducing weight. I have never had a problem with weight or cholesterol. I have always exercised. I, in fact, have a problem maintaining weight due medication which reduces inflammation (I am on a high caloric content low fiber diet). All of the nanny state laws to limit the calories of the obese among us also discriminate against the other 40% of the population with no such problems.

Truth in Moderation

August 13th, 2012
1:46 pm

The New York fashion industry is also promoting “Full Figure Fashion Week”. Go “figure.”

National Geographic did an interesting documentary on the Frito-Lay chip factory in Perry, Georgia.
Big business has invested millions in the snack food industry. Many snack food factories use high tech equipment, employ thousands, and are very much a part of the local economy. The Perry factory employs 1400 workers, plus a surrounding potato farm industry. No snacks, no jobs. Chew on that.
Also, most schools depend on vending machines for a non-tax revenue stream. Fat, unhealthy kids keep Big Pharma in business.
Help the economy. Eat more chips!


August 13th, 2012
1:53 pm

Anyone, who takes a weekend day stroll through SIx Flags Over Georgia and see the amount of OBESE young people and their parents waddling through the Park, eating Tons of sugar and unhealthy foods, will undeniably agree that something needs to be done to reduce this behavior.

If we do not, our Healthcare system, eventually will not be able to be sustained even at the level of quality of care we enjoy today, as a result of damage caused by such behavior.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

August 13th, 2012
1:56 pm

Do children have a right to develop unhealthy eating habits which will haunt them for much, if not all, of the remainders of their respective lives?

Hey, I’ve got another children’s “right:” How ’bout the right to be ignorant?


August 13th, 2012
2:01 pm

@3 schoolkids, while vending machines with healthy options sounds good, it is unworkable, the problem lies in who makes the choice as to what is and isn’t healthy, for instance Eddie G implies that sports drinks are healthy (or consdered so by whoever lumps them with Diet soda), which they are most certainly not. There is no reason for any vending machines in school, well at least ELHI. Either eat in the cafeteria or bring food from home. Oh and if Mommy wants to send Johnny to school with pixie sticks, coke and a capt’n crunch sandwich ;o) so be it


August 13th, 2012
4:18 pm

Snack food companies have scientist/cooks and tasting panels creating the best and most innovative ways to get salty snacks, crunchy snacks and sweet snacks inside us. We don’t stand a chance. It’s like saying smoking is a choice once you’ve been smoking for years. No, it’s an addiction and the food addiction must be overcome just like any other.

The US Food Machine is awesome. It feeds over 300 million people a day in this country alone and we have fast food and junk food stations on most every corner. You are not hungry, you have been trained to eat at 99 cent menus without even having to get out of your car.


August 13th, 2012
5:32 pm

I went to school in the 60’s and the 70’s… in the surburbs I can tell you we did not have vending machines in our schools nor were there any fast-food joints around, every once in awhile the booster club would sell candy for sports activities and to raise money for other after school events. Schools have change a lot since then, if you didn’t get your sugar fix at your convenience store you were out of luck, mind you we didn’t have Starbucks, bottled water or students driving BMW to their favorite drive-thru burger joint. One thing we did have though….P.E. and walking.

Truth in Moderation

August 13th, 2012
11:31 pm

All of mine need to GAIN weight. Because we home school, I can heavily control their junk food consumption. This year we are exercising an hour every day and drinking a glass of water with every meal. I cook almost exclusively with olive oil from Greece and use whole grain pasta, rice, and breads. The kids love fresh fruit. I try to buy organic as much as possible. I started home schooling them seven years ago, AND THEY HAVE NOT BEEN SICK SINCE!

You are exactly right. The school children were once protected from commercial exploitation.


August 14th, 2012
12:28 pm

I look back at my time in high school in Cobb County in late 90s and laugh at the fact that most people ate either pizza and fries or fried chicken and fries. I’ve never heard of a place since then that also serves fries with its pizza. Few ate at the healty food line. The only new food they added while I was in high school was the dessert line.

Ole Guy

August 15th, 2012
12:06 pm

Is there some sort of mystery here; some sort of new-found knowledge; some nugget of an earth-shaking discovery? Quite simply, this entire arguement goes back to the “ole fashioned” premise of CONTROLLING YOUR GD KIDS’ CHOICES AND BEHAVIORS. All this “study” does is sanctify the arguement that kids AND adults are incapable of making wise food choices (or, for that matter, choices, both food and non-food…but that’s another issue for some tv talk show host).

As with many…TOO DAMN MANY…issues of contention with the halls of public academe, the answers are there. You people are simply too gd afraid: teachers are afraid of prinsipals, principals are afraid of parents; EVERYONE’s afraid of these kids who, quite frankly, are going to (in a very few short years) become screwed up adults just like the parents who spawned them.

So you can either save all the money, hoopla, and sanctimoneous pontification, OR you can start controlling your gd kids’ choices and behaviors…or is that too ole fashioned and out of touch?


August 15th, 2012
6:39 pm

@ Ole Guy. Have you ever had kids?