Poor dietary habits are catching up with the youngest members of our society: one of every three kids in the US is overweight or obese. But a new study provides encouraging results, suggesting that limiting snack foods in schools can make measurable improvements in children’s diets.
To prevent snack attacks, limit snack access
For the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, 10,285 fifth-grade children from 2065 elementary schools completed questionnaires about their eating habits. The researchers measured fruit and vegetable consumption, not including French fries, fried potatoes, or potato chips, and categorized each child’s intake as:
• rare—less than once per day
• occasional—one to three times per day
• frequent—more than three times per day
Children’s diet habits were compared with school policy regarding availability of snack foods from vending machines, school stores, snack bars, or a la carte in the cafeteria. A wide variety of snack foods were considered, including chocolate candy; other candy; cookies, crackers, cakes, pastries, and regular baked goods; regular ice cream and frozen yogurt; salty snacks such as potato chips; low-fat ice cream, frozen yogurt, or sherbet; low-fat baked goods; low-fat salty snacks; and bread products such as bagels and bread sticks.
Children in schools with unrestricted snack food access were 13% less likely to report frequent fruit consumption and 21% less likely to report frequent vegetable consumption compared with children in schools with snack food restrictions. The type and number of snacks did not affect the relationship between snacks and fruit and vegetable consumption, suggesting that any snacks, even low-fat varieties, can have detrimental impacts on children’s dietary choices and likely, their health and body weight.
In discussing childhood obesity and nutrition, Dr. David Ludwig, director of the childhood obesity program at Children’s Hospital in Boston notes, “We still lack anything resembling a national strategy to take this problem seriously.”
This new research points toward positive policy changes at the school level that may improve kids’ diet choices and hopefully, stem the tide of childhood obesity.
Good food behavior
If you want to improve childhood nutrition in your community and your own home, try the following:
• Talk to your school’s superintendent about snack food policy. If snack foods are freely available, request the policy be revisited in light of this new research.
• Attend school board meetings. Bring up the topic of childhood nutrition and how the schools can help.
• Become active in your Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and make improved nutrition in the schools a priority that the group tackles.
• Offer creative fund-raising solutions such as having kids sell an everyday item like coffee, rather than candy, to support sports, music, and extracurricular activities. This can offset revenue loss from fewer snack sales.
• Model good nutrition behavior. Snack on fruit and vegetables and make these foods readily available for your kids.
• Limit total screen time, including TV, computers, and hand-held devices such as cell phones. For children, there is a proven direct relationship: more screen time equals more pounds.
(J Nutr 2009;139:142–4)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD
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