No Obesity Link to Junk Food in Schools

childhood obesityWith childhood obesity rates on the rise in Canada, more and more provinces are trying to get junk food banned from our schools.  Many provinces have mandatory guidelines in place and a number of provinces have voluntary guidelines regarding the sale and consumption of junk food in schools.  A new study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University suggests that this may not be an effective way to combat the alarming rates of childhood obesity in North America.

The researchers followed over 19,000 students from fifth grade up until eighth grade and tracked their body mass index (BMI) through each year.  BMI is calculated using a child’s height and weight and is an indicator of body fat. BMI is an alternative to direct body fat measuring techniques and is considered a reliable indicator of body fat for most children and adolescents.  When the children were in fifth grade 59% of them attended a school where candy, snacks and sugar-sweetened drinks were sold.  By eighth grade 86% of the children went to a school where they had access to these items.  The researchers compared a number of different variables, which included:

– They compared children in schools where junk food was sold to children in schools where it was banned

– They compared eighth graders who moved into a school where junk food was sold to those who did not transfer to a school where junk food was sold

– They compared children who never attended a school where junk food was sold to those that did

– They compared children who always attended a school with junk food to those that moved out of a school where junk food was sold

No matter how the researchers manipulated the data, they found no correlation between attending a school where junk food was available and obesity rates.  The authors do not dispute the fact that childhood obesity rates are on the rise, rather they state that eating habits are established early in life.  By the time children are in fifth grade, their eating habits are set and whether or not junk food is sold in the school has no bearing on whether they become obese or not.  They state that the responsibility of controlling childhood obesity rates should not solely be put on the school system.

As a society, where do we go from here?  Currently approximately 26% of Canadian children are classified as overweight or obese.  This is cause for concern as a multitude of health problems are associated with obesity including:  heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, bone and joint disorders, among others.  With such a high rate of childhood obesity, chronic health problems are going to be seen at an earlier age and will stress the healthcare system in this country.  What this new research should tell us is that healthy eating habits need to begin in the home.  Parents need to implement these healthy eating habits from day one so that their children will establish these good eating habits for life.  If, as parents, we take the majority of the responsibility for instilling good eating habits, we won’t need to rely on our school systems to do the job for us.