A ban on junk food in school cafeterias is having a small but significant effect on high school students in California. A new study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine has found that state policies banning the sale of soft drinks and junk food and setting nutritional standards for food sold in cafeterias and vending machines are paying off.
California high school students now consume 158 fewer calories a day than teenagers in other states, about the amount in a small bag of potato chips. The difference in their consumptions habits came largely from school, the study having found “no evidence that students were compensating for their limited access to junk food at school by eating more at home.”
158 calories is not a lot, of course, but it is significant, as Daniel R. Taber, an author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, notes to the New York Times:
“I would definitely say that 158 calories is significant. When you combine this study with other studies on California law, the body of evidence suggests the schools in California really have made healthier changes by getting rid of things like sweets and candy bars.”
Kids and teenagers in particular (I know! my son will be 15 next week and I seem to have to restock the kitchen almost every day) are growing and need to eat. The results of the study suggest that, when hunger strikes, they’ll eat what is available, including more nutritious options.
Details About the Study About Junk Food Bans in Schools
The researchers examined data for 680 students, from California and from 14 other states that did not have the same kinds of nutritional criteria. Here’s what they found:
California students had the lowest daily intake of calories, fat and, especially, added sugars. And it seemed clear that their eating behaviors at school played a large role. California students got a lower proportion of their daily calories from school foods than students in other states: about 21.5 percent, compared with 28.4 percent among students elsewhere.
Latino/a students, among whom there is a higher prevalence for youth obesity, were found to lower their fat, sugar and calorie consumption, too.
Taber and the other researchers are quite aware that the study’s results don’t mean that California high school students are giving up candy bars and salty chips for carrot sticks. He suggests that schools should go a step further and work on replacing junk foods like baked crisps and desserts with fruits, vegetables and whole grain items. While Iowa has a law that at least half of the foods outside of meal plans include whole grains, no state has a law requiring that whole, unprocessed or fresh foods be available outside of lunch offerings — via vending machines, for instance.
As students consume only about a quarter of their calories at school, Tabor says that “school initiatives could also focus on students’ eating behaviors at home.” That seems like a tall order, as schools can hardly exert control about what students eat with their families. But they can continue to offer instruction about health, nutrition and fitness — though again, as a teenager’s mother, I know that it’s one thing to tell your child “eat this apple, it’s good for you” and for him to actually eat it.
Junk food didn’t always exist: Kids need to be reminded, French fries and soda are only recent additions to the human diet!
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