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.
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