University of Illinois Chicago study: Laws reducing availability of snacks are decreasing childhood obesity

13 Aug

In Government is trying to control the vending machine choices of children, moi wrote:

The goal of this society should be to raise healthy and happy children who will grow into concerned and involved adults who care about their fellow citizens and environment. In order to accomplish this goal, all children must receive a good basic education and in order to achieve that goal, children must arrive at school, ready to learn. Ron Nixon reports in the New York Times article, New Guidelines Planned on School Vending Machines about the attempt to legislate healthier eating habits.

There have been studies about the effect of vending machine snacking and childhood obesity.

Katy Waldman wrote the Slate article, Do Vending Machines Affect Student Obesity?

Despite all the recent handwringing (even pearl clutching) over junk food in schools, a study out this month in the quarterly Sociology of Education found no link between student obesity rates and the school-wide sale of candy, chips, or sugary soda. The finding undermines efforts by policy makers to trim kids’ waistlines by banning snacks from the classroom. And it must taste odd to the many doctors and scientists who see vending machines as accessories in the childhood obesity epidemic.  

The study followed 19,450 fifth graders of both sexes for four years. At the beginning, 59 percent of the students went to schools that sold “competitive foods”—that is, non-cafeteria fare not reimbursable through federal meal programs. CFs tend to have higher sugar or fat content and lower nutritional value (think the indulgences at the top of the food pyramid, like Coke and Oreos). By the time the students reached eighth grade, 86 percent of them attended schools that sold competitive foods. The researchers, led by Pennsylvania State University’s Jennifer Van Hook, then compared body mass indexes from the 19,450 students, including those who’d spent all four years in junk food-free environments, those who’d left such schools for vending machine-friendly ones, those who’d transferred from vending machine-friendly schools to junk food-free schools, and those who enjoyed access to vending machines for all four years. Regardless of which data sets they contrasted, the researchers were unable to find any sort of connection between obesity and the availability of “unhealthy” snacks in school. In other words, children who could theoretically grab a Snickers bar after class every day for four years were, on average, no heavier than those who couldn’t.

While Van Hook speculated to the New York Times that the findings reflect our tendency to “establish food preferences… early in life,” she also noted in her paper that middle schoolers’ regimented schedules could prevent them from doing much unsupervised eating. (I guess that means that the students didn’t have time to utilize the junk food options they had, which is an issue for another day). In any case, the takeaway is clear. You can’t solve childhood obesity by outlawing vending machines. The obesity epidemic (if it is one) depends on a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors. Maybe a full-court press of school regulations plus zoning laws that encourage supermarkets to come to poor neighborhoods plus government subsidies for fruits and veggies plus crackdowns on fast food advertising plus fifty other adjustments would begin to make a dent in the problem. (Maybe a saner cultural attitude towards food, weight, and looks in general would also help).

See, Rising Childhood Obesity and Vending Machines

Sabrina Tavernise reports in the New York Times article, Study Links Healthier Weight in Children With Strict Laws on School Snacks:

Adolescents in states with strict laws regulating the sale of snacks and sugary drinks in public schools gained less weight over a three-year period than those living in states with no such laws, a new study has found.

The study, published Monday in Pediatrics, found a strong association between healthier weight and tough state laws regulating food in vending machines, snack bars and other venues that were not part of the regular school meal programs. Such snacks and drinks are known as competitive foods, because they compete with school breakfasts and lunches.

The conclusions are likely to further stoke the debate over what will help reduce obesity rates, which have been rising drastically in the United States since the 1980s. So far, very little has proved effective and rates have remained stubbornly high. About a fifth of American children are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health experts have urged local and state governments to remove competitive foods from schools, and in recent years states have started to pass laws that restrict their sale, either banning them outright or setting limits on the amount of sugar, fat or calories they contain.

The study tracked weight changes for 6,300 students in 40 states between 2004 and 2007, following them from fifth to eighth grade. They used the results to compare weight change over time in states with no laws regulating such food against those in states with strong laws and those with weak laws.

Researchers used a legal database to analyze state laws. Strong laws were defined as those that set out detailed nutrition standards. Laws were weak if they merely offered recommendations about foods for sale, for example, saying they should be healthy but not providing specific guidelines.

The study stopped short of saying the stronger laws were directly responsible for the better outcomes. It concluded only that such outcomes tended to happen in states with stronger laws, but that the outcomes were not necessarily the result of those laws. However, researchers added that they controlled for a number of factors that would have influenced outcomes.

Here is the press release about the University of Illinois Chicago study:

Strong State Laws on School Snacks, Drinks May Help Prevent Weight Gain, New Study Finds



Children and teens in states with strong laws restricting the sale of unhealthy snack foods and beverages in school gained less weight over a three-year period than those living in states with no such policies, according to a study published by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Additionally, students who were overweight or obese in fifth grade were less likely to remain so by the time they reached eighth grade if they lived in a state with a strong law than if they lived in a state with no such law.

The study will be published in the September 2012 issue of the journal Pediatrics. [LINK TO ABSTRACT]

To conduct the study, researchers examined state laws regarding what snack foods and beverages could be sold in schools outside of the federal school meals program. State laws requiring schools to only sell snacks that met specific nutrition standards were classified as “strong” policies. Policies were classified as “weak” if they merely recommended that schools make changes, or if they did not create specific nutritional guidelines, relying instead on general language about “healthy” foods.

Students exposed to strong snack food and beverage laws throughout the three years of the study had the smallest increases in body mass index (BMI), a ratio of height to weight. Those who were exposed to weaker laws over time saw the same change in their BMIs as did students living in states with no policies at all.

Specific, consistent requirements about what types of snack foods and drinks can be sold at school seemed to have a direct impact on student weight,” said Daniel Taber, a researcher at the UIC Institute for Health Research and Policy and lead author of the study. “This study definitely suggests that states can have an impact on student health when they enact effective school health policies.”

Taber conducted this research as a co-investigator with Bridging the Gap, a research project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

Many schools sell snacks and drinks in vending machines, school stores or cafeteria à la carte lines. These items are sometimes called “competitive foods” because they compete with school meals for students’ spending. In recent years, states have begun to pass laws that prohibit schools from selling certain foods or drinks, or those that set limits for the fat, salt, sugar or calorie content of items. For instance, schools have begun to replace unhealthy items, such as sodas and candy, with healthier choices, such as low-fat milks and fruit.

Despite state action, today there is only a very limited national standard for snack foods and beverages in schools. Passed in 1979, the standard prohibits schools from selling things like candy or gum in the cafeteria during lunch. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 enabled the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update the standard so that it aligns with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but the USDA has yet to do so.

This is the first longitudinal study to examine the impact of snack and drink policies on student weight using completely objective data. Similar past studies have used either self-reported height and weight, or interviews with school principals about policies, either of which could result in weaker evidence.

Taber and his colleagues at Bridging the Gap and the National Cancer Institute used several databases of state laws to analyze the strength of school snack policies. They scored each based on how specific it was and whether it required action from schools or merely made recommendations. To calculate student BMI, they used objective height and weight measurements from 6,300 students in 40 states. The measurements were done in the spring of 2004, when students were in fifth grade, and again in the spring of 2007, when they were in eighth grade.

Students exposed to strong laws in fifth grade gained an average of 0.25 fewer BMI units over three years than did students in states with no policies at all. That equates to roughly 1.25 fewer pounds for a child who was 5 feet tall and weighed 100 pounds. Students who lived in states with strong laws throughout the entire three-year period gained an average of 0.44 fewer BMI units than those in states with no policies, or roughly 2.25 fewer pounds for a 5-foot-tall, 100-pound child.

It’s encouraging to see that strong state laws can help students maintain healthier weights,” said C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, senior scientist at RWJF. “However, because not all students live in states with effective policies, we need to make sure that we get a strong national policy in place.”

Taber and his colleagues note that the laws that were most effective were those that set strong standards at both the elementary- and middle-school levels. Currently, many states have stronger laws at the elementary level than at middle school. Ensuring that students have healthy school environments as they age is likely to be effective in helping them stay healthy, the authors concluded.

Read the abstract of the study, “Weight Status Among Adolescents in States That Govern Competitive Food Nutrition Content.”

The study was conducted as part of Bridging the Gap, a nationally recognized research program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and dedicated to improving the understanding of how policies and environmental factors affect diet, physical activity and obesity among youth, as well as youth tobacco use. It is a joint project of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Health Research and Policy and the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Learn more about Bridging the Gap research at

This news release, written by Patty Hall [], was adapted with permission of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, N.J. For more information about the foundation, visit

The issue of childhood obesity is complicated and there are probably many factors. If a child’s family does not model healthy eating habits, it probably will be difficult to change the food preferences of the child. Our goal as a society should be:

A healthy child in a healthy family who attends a healthy school in a healthy neighborhood ©


Study: Fitter kids get better grades               

Report: Obesity is a public health issue

The Healthy Schools Coalition fights for school-based efforts to combat obesity                                         

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

4 Responses to “University of Illinois Chicago study: Laws reducing availability of snacks are decreasing childhood obesity”


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