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School snack laws may help prevent weight gain

August 13, 2012|By Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times
  • Vendors say these items are healthier than some machine snacks.
Vendors say these items are healthier than some machine snacks. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Students gained less weight over three years if they lived in states that restricted the sale of unhealthy snacks at school than kids in states without those laws, a study has found.

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, also found that students in states with the restrictive laws who were overweight or obese in fifth grade were less likely to be that way by eighth grade than students in other states.

The food and beverages sold in school stores, vending machines and elsewhere but outside the school meal program are often called “competitive foods” because they compete with the meals programs for student dollars.

The nutritional content of those foods and beverages is regulated by some state and local districts, including California. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the job of updating the standards for these foods to bring them into line with federal dietary guidelines. The USDA has not done that yet.

Laws that exist set out limits for such components of the foods as salt, sugar and fat.

So the researchers tried to see the effects of state laws on children’s Body Mass Index, a ratio of height to weight. They looked at 6,300 students in fifth and eighth grades in 40 states. The states were classified as having strong, weak or no laws governing competitive foods in 2003 and 2006.

Students in states with strong laws all three years gained an average of 0.44 fewer BMI units and were less likely to remain overweight or obese than their peers in other states.  That’s about 2.25 fewer pounds for a child who is 5 feet tall and weighed 100 pounds.

“This study definitely suggests that states can have an impact on student health when they enact effective school health policies,” Daniel Taber, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said in a statement. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the study.

In 2009-10, nearly one fifth of U.S. teenagers were obese. Experts argue that educating young people about maintaining a healthy weight will not work without attendant changes to the food available to them, often called an “obesogenic environment.”

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