Since the 1980s, obesity rates have risen dramatically in the US, with more than one-third of adults obese or overweight and almost one-fifth of children. Public health experts have called for laws at both the federal and state to level to ban “competitive foods,” those that are not part of the regular school lunch program but are sold from vending machines, snack bars and other venues.
A new study in the journal Pediatrics has found a “strong association” between adolescents with healthier weights and states with tougher laws regulating the sale of such foods. 6,300 students in 40 states were tracked between 2004 and 2007, from the time they were in the fifth to eighth grades; researchers compared weight changes for students in states with no laws regulating snack foods vs. those in states with strong and weak laws.
Strong laws were identified as those providing detailed nutritional standards, while weak laws were those that offered recommendations — for foods to be “healthy,” for instance — but without specific guidelines.
Researchers found a correlation (an association, rather than a direct link) between states with strong laws and students with healthier body weights over the three years. Such students gained approximately 2.25 fewer pounds (for a 5-foot-tall child) than students in states without policies did. In addition, students who were obese in the fifth grade were more likely to be at a healthy weight in the eighth grade in states with strong laws.
In contrast, in the states with weak laws, students had weight gains that did not differ from those of students in states without policies.
Proof For Strong Laws Regulating School Snacks?
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helped to finance the study and says that it offers evidence for local governments to toughen policies about food offerings in school environments.
Foes of “nanny state” laws — banning soda and regulating levels of fat, sugar and sodium in foods — counter that students are not in school long enough for such laws to have any effect, especially if a child’s home environment is full of unhealthy options.
Children Can Choose Healthier Options, With A Little Help
Given the high rates for obesity in the US and elsewhere — in Canada, almost 26 per cent of children aged 6 to 19 are overweight or obese — it is no wonder that public health experts feel the need to try measures such as limits on competitive food. A recent University of Waterloo study of 337 children at a YMCA camp in Cambridge, Ontario, makes the point that children can choose healthier foods but they need, shall we say, a nudge.
According to the Toronto Star, only 19 percent of 6 to 12 years old chose the healthier option when presented with the choice of McDonald’s Happy Meal with apple slices and water or fries and a can of Coke, both with a toy. But when the choice was a toy with the healthier meal vs. the fries and Coke meal but no toy, 40 percent of children chose the healthier option.
Incentives and Learning To Make Healthy Food Choices
Offering a child a toy to get her or him to eat healthfully can be criticized as, well, bribery. As a parent, I’ve learned that a child needs a “nudge” — some sort of motivation — to choose apples over fries, or water over soda. My own motivation to teach my son to eat healthfully has been strengthened by reports of higher numbers of children with disabilities being overweight; also, my son, who’s moderately to severely autistic, takes some medications that can lead to weight gain. He is not a vegetable eater but likes fresh fruit, so we have plenty of that available.
I teach college students and food offerings on my (urban) campus are not very healthy or rather, healthier options such as salads are far outnumbered by a full range of fast food and similar fare. A good percentage of students at my college are Latino and have mentioned concerns about health problems associated with weight gain (diabetes) in their families. I’ve rarely seen students munching on fruits or vegetables or rather, anything besides packaged, salty, sugary items.
Of course, college students can’t be told what to eat but I wonder: Had there ever been concerted efforts to teach them healthier eating habits, not to automatically reach for chips, cookies and carbs?
Strong laws regulating school snack foods may smack of social control, but the obesity problem in the US and elsewhere is real. Why do nothing when we could do something?
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