Can Laws Against Junk Food in Schools Rein In Child Obesity?

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Kids who live in states with strict laws regulating the sale of junk food and sugary drinks in school gain less weight than their peers in states with weak or no such laws, according to a new study published online in the journal Pediatrics.

The study looked at data on 6,300 students in 40 states, tracking their height and weight between 2004 and ’07, from fifth to eighth grade. Six states had strict laws restricting the sale of so-called competitive foods — snacks and drinks sold in vending machines, school stores and during fundraising projects, which compete with school-served meals; seven states had weak laws; and 27 states had no laws governing competitive foods in middle schools.

Laws were considered strong if they included specific nutrition standards — like limiting sugars and fats. They were labeled as weak if they were vague, suggesting the sale of “healthy” foods, for example, without giving detailed guidelines.

(MORE: Disney’s Diet: No More Junk-Food Ads on Kids Channels)

Between fifth and eighth grades, the researchers found, kids living in states with strong competitive-food laws gained less weight than other kids — about 2.2 lb. less for a 5-ft. tall, 100-lb. child, for example. Those kids who were already obese in fifth grade were also more likely to have reached a healthy weight by eighth grade, if they lived in a state with strict laws.

The study is the first to take a broad look at the effectiveness of competitive-food laws nationwide. The effect of those laws was modest, and the researchers couldn’t definitively say that the laws directly caused healthier weights in kids, but the findings are encouraging and likely to inform the debate over how best to curb child obesity. Many public-health officials and obesity experts support banning junk food from schools, while the packaged-food industry and school districts that make money off those products oppose such laws. Critics of regulation also note that school accounts for only one small factor in a child’s overall food environment and that banning junk food during the school day won’t do much good if kids go home to more unhealthy choices.

But while child obesity is a complex problem with a multitude of causes, the study’s data suggest that competitive-food laws may have a measurable impact on kids’ weight. “Competitive-food laws can have an effect on obesity rates if the laws are specific, required and consistent,” study co-author Daniel Taber, a health-policy researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the New York Times.

(MORE: Watching TV Steers Children Toward Eating Junk)

In states with strong competitive-food laws, nearly 39% of fifth-graders were overweight and 21% were obese at the beginning of the study. By eighth grade, those rates had fallen to 34% and 18%, respectively. In states with weak or no laws, 37% of fifth-graders were overweight and 21% were obese, and there were no real changes to those rates by the time the students entered eighth grade.

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child-obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years: in 2008, more than a third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese, putting them at risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Even if competitive-food laws have only a small effect in turning that tide, “What are the downsides of improving the food environment for children today?” Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, commented to the Associated Press. “You can’t get much worse than it already is.”

MORE: The Sad State of American Kids’ Food Environments
LIST: Top 10 Iconic Junk Foods

13 comments
chelseaU
chelseaU

It seems that childhood obesity epidemic in America has become a real threat for the American children. For all the potential criticisms one can levy against the nanny state attitude, sometimes, facts sometimes support Big Brother's method. In the case of a recently released study on the impact unhealthy food regulations have had on child obesity, there is compelling proof that suggests that when such regulation is applied to school cafeteria food and accessibility to vending machines with unhealthy food, student fat diminishes.

David Shedlock
David Shedlock

Just think what could be accomplished if the government regulated what people ate at home!  Better yet, let's just let the government plan all of our meals for us, as they already manipulate the food farmers produce. Then parents won't have to parent anymore!  Just think - no more juicy meat, no sweets, no salt, nothing tasty.

rory robertson (former fattie)
rory robertson (former fattie)

In Australia, the good news is that University of Sydney scientists have proved that there is "an inverse relationship" between added sugar and obesity. That is, eat more of the sweet stuff and drink more sugary softdrinks and you'll trim down nicely!  When challenged, they "proved" it by publishing the same thing again.  Check out the charts that prove their claims at http://www.australianparadox.c...  Maybe also try the $40,000 Oz Paradox Challenge at #12 on the LHS.  Could you answer the 8 awkward questions at #16?

CharleyX
CharleyX

Pass all the policies and laws you want.  If a person doesn't care about their weight, they will find a way to be fat.  It's like trying to get a person who smokes cigarettes to quit when they don't want to.  Good luck with all of these feel-good policies.

Mitch Labuda
Mitch Labuda

We need to take some steps to correct our habits of eating foods that contribute to our ill health as we are aghast at the rising health care costs while we eat our way to ill health.

Bear Peterson
Bear Peterson

The primary reason obesity is such a problem isn't just "junk food" it is the drugs (they call them "flavor enhancers") that food companies routinely add to almost ALL processed foods, not just to the "junk foods" although they are usually higher in those drugs than most other foods. 

MSG, Autolyzed Yeast, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Proteins and Aspartame are all very high in free glutamates. The food industry is being truthful in claiming that "Glutamates are essential to life." Because after all, glutamate is the most abundant of all the essential amino acids that make up all protein. 

HOWEVER, our bodies were never intended to take in large quantities of free glutamate, nor any other amino acid in its free state, it was meant to take in protein whole and break it down in the gut, giving you just the amount you need for your body and brain to function properly. MSG is a substance that is colorless, and odorless but when added to your food makes you think that it tastes far better than it really does, in other words it is a MIND ALTERING DRUG! The food industry knows full well that if they could cover the smell with an appetizing aroma and add enough MSG to it they could feed you dog crap, and you not only would think it was great, you couldn't get enough of it. You couldn't get enough of it because of the way free glutamate stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain into releasing large quantities of dopamine, your own body's equivalent to the drug morphine! Yes it is an addictive drug as well. And it is virtually impossible to avoid. 

In their free state glutamate and several other essential amino acids become what are known to neuroscientists as excitotoxins, yes a toxin is a poison, in the case of excitotoxins they over stimulate the neurons to the point that it causes them to die, yet it is perfectly legal for the food industry to put them in every thing they feed you just to increase their product sales. They do this because without them you would take one bite and say "Yuck!!! This tastes like dog crap!!!"

StefaniaBelmondo
StefaniaBelmondo

"Many public-health officials and obesity experts support banning junk

food from schools, while the packaged-food industry and school districts

that make money off such products oppose such laws."

And that's the problem in American politics. You can't create laws to enhance the national health if it means that some private entities might lose profits. To hell with the children, these fellas need to sell potato chips!

"Critics of regulation also note that school accounts for only one small

factor in a child’s overall food environment and that banning junk food

during the school day won’t do much good if kids go home to more

unhealthy choices."

Kids also get lots of bad information from their friends and from the media. Why bother trying to teach them anything at school, if it only amounts to a small portion of information they receive.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

If parents really loved their kids they wouldn't let schools fed them this garbage.

Invidia
Invidia

Blah.  There is no indication, from this research, that the students are less fat because they eat healthier food, as opposed to just NOT EATING, period.  School lunches are as greasy and salty as junk food, and considerably grosser. The first step should be to mandate healthy and EDIBLE school lunches -- only then is there any point in banning alternatives. 

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Arnoldiwo

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