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Laws Limiting Schools' Junk Food Linked to Lower Student BMIs

Students living in states with laws that limit high-calorie food and drinks in school were found to have smaller increases in body mass index (BMI) than students in states with weaker or no such laws, according to a study published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers sought to evaluate the effectiveness of states' competitive food laws by analyzing data from 6,300 children in 40 states, taken from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class. The students provided BMI data in the spring of their 5th and 8th grade years. Competitive food laws regulate whether items such as soda, candy, and other snack and junk foods can be sold in schools.

The researchers matched up those students' BMI figures with state competitive food laws from 2003, which govern the availability of high-calorie foods and drinks in schools, then measured the impact of changes in those state laws from 2003 to 2006.

Laws were considered "strong" if they had specific, required standards, instead of "weak language," such as "recommended" standards.

In general, the strength and consistency of such laws were found to have the greatest effect on students' BMIs. Students exposed to strong standards over the three-year span were found to have the lowest BMI gains, while students in states with weaker laws over time experienced the same BMI gains as students in states with no such laws.

In other words: "Students in states with strong laws were less likely to remain overweight or obese from fifth to eighth grade, but the same was not true in states with weak laws," the authors wrote.

They found that students who lived in states with weak 2003 laws experienced slightly smaller BMI gains than students in states with no such laws, but the difference between students in states with strong laws and no laws was nearly twice as large.

The researchers were surprised to discover, however, that students exposed to new laws in 2006 had smaller BMI gains in states with weak laws, but not so in states with strong laws.

Their findings lead them to conclude that "competitive food laws may improve adolescent weight status," and that the "strength of language, comprehensiveness, and consistency of new food standards will be imperative for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to succeed in reducing childhood obesity."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to propose regulations for what foods and drinks can be sold outside of school cafeterias sometime this year. The regulations haven't been released yet because Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "has asked for additional time to review the proposed standards for competitive foods to ensure that we do what is right for kids in a way that is workable to the school districts that will be charged with implementation," the agency told Education Week.

On a related obesity note: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week released its latest annual state-by-state data regarding obesity prevalence among adults.

Things aren't looking so hot for the South on the CDC's map.

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