by Marion Nestle
Aug 16 2012

Surprise! Kids who don’t eat junk foods in school don’t gain as much weight

I love the new study reported in Pediatrics.    It confirms just what I have long expected.  If you don’t expose kids to junk foods and sodas, they won’t eat as much, and they won’t put on as much fat.

The study found that kids who go to schools where lots of junk foods are sold are heavier than those who go to schools in states with strict standards about the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks.

The investigators compared the body mass indices (BMIs) of kids in schools in 40 states with varying nutrition standards for what is allowed in “competitive” foods–those sold outside the lunch programs.

Kids from schools with stricter standards had lower BMIs.

The authors explain their result:

Experts argue that education will not suffice without changing the contemporary ‘obesogenic’ environment in which adolescents have countless sources of high-caloric-density, low-nutrient-density foods and beverages. Schools have become a source of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), candy, and other foods and beverages of minimal nutritional value.

Food Chemical News (August 14) reminds me that when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act of 2010, it authorized the USDA to develop nutrition standards both for meals—but also competitive foods.

USDA issued final rules for school meals in January (remember the fuss over pizza is a vegetable?).

Its rules for competitive foods were sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget in mid-March, but are still stuck there, most likely because the White House does not want to introduce regulations that might adversely affect food company sales during an election year, especially one in which the role of government is so prominent an issue.

This is an election year, in case you haven’t noticed, and looks like it will be an especially unattractive one, unfortunately.

  • HAD

    typo – ” If you don’t expose foods to junk foods and sodas” should be ” If you don’t expose KIDS to junk foods and sodas”

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  • My favorite thing about health reporting is that correlation equals causation every time.

    A comparison of kids in states with strong competitive food laws with kids in states that don’t is just a likely telling us that the habits and behaviors of a population that would be in favor of passing those laws is different that those of a population that resists those laws.

    Also if you dig around the tables in the study, the story of the correlation is fairly murky.

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  • Anthro

    While not as strident as Mark Brazeau in my criticism, I must say that my first question was whether or not other factors were accounted for? Perhaps the kids in the better-monitored schools also have parents who do a better job of monitoring their children’s TV/game time and prepare more healthful meals at home? Perhaps they don’t buy soda or provide “treats” on a constant basis?

    Perhaps these confounders were accounted for?

  • My apologies for stridency.

  • Emma

    I, too, wonder about other factors at play here. It seems to me that schools that are able to have stricter controls on the so-called competitive foods are likely to be schools in higher-income districts, with parents who are more able to provide home-cooked meals and access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Again, as Anthro says, these factors may have been accounted for but it’s hard to tell.

  • Allie

    Previous commenter Emma took the words right out of my mouth. But of course, the school, home, and general environment all play a role.

    This work also reminds me (slightly) of Karen Le Billon’s experiences in comparing French kids’ snacking habits with those of kids in the US, which I find infinitely interesting…

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  • I agree with some of the skepticism, you can never take a statistic at face value. However we can’t know how all these factors influence each other so there’s no harm in picking one and starting from there when it comes to improving nutrition (and nutrition education, when it comes to guiding children towards what they should eat via school lunches)