Battling junk food in high schools
May 11th, 2012
05:57 PM ET

Battling junk food in high schools

Five years ago, California passed some of the strongest school-food legislation in the nation in hopes of combating childhood obesity.

These rules limit the kinds of unhealthy foods that students can buy in vending machines or at a snack bar, which aren’t offered as part of lunch in the school's cafeteria.

The state is well-known for leading the nation with health trends, so it's no surprise that its legislators are out front when it comes to cutting back on junk food in schools. A new study shows their efforts may be working: High school students in California are eating fewer calories and less added sugar and fat during the school day than students from other states.

According to researchers, high school students in California eat about 160 fewer calories a day than students in the 14 other states studied, which have less stringent standards for junk foods. Most of these saved calories came from eating less while in school, and when students headed home they didn't appear to overeat to compensate for consuming fewer calories during the school day.

"If teenagers consume 158 fewer calories on average, while maintaining healthy levels of physical activity, it could go a long way toward preventing excess weight gain," says Daniel Taber, lead author of the study and investigator at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

The research was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Limiting calories from junk food could potentially help a student shed about 7.5 pounds over the school year, according to an accompanying editorial in the Archives journal by Dr. Barbara Dennison. This could add up to 30 pounds by the end of high school.

But registered dietitian Andrea Giancoli, who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, points out that the study did not compare the weight of children in California to the weight of students in the 14 other states. Further studies are needed to find out if California students are indeed winning the obesity battle.

Taber says more work needs to be done.

"Just because students cannot purchase high-fat, high-sugar candies does not automatically mean they're eating a spinach salad in its place. If we really want to improve the quality of students' diet, we need to promote fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy alternatives that appeal to students," Taber said.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to regulate foods sold outside of the meal plan. Ofter referred to as competitive foods, these are snacks and junk food students can buy from the vending machines or at other locations in school. These standards may be completed within the next year.

In the meantime, California and several other states such as Oregon and Massachusetts have put together strong competitive food standards for their high school students to get a jump on the junk foods issue.

“The school setting can make significant change, but we all have to work together. It takes a village to raise a child. Neighborhoods and food companies, restaurants and the marketers of junk food have to jump on the bandwagon as well to solve this childhood obesity problem,” says Giancoli.

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