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School Junk Food and Obesity Not Linked

news story by Jillian Reed | January 24, 2012

Related Topics: health, childhood obesity, junk food, study, education, health education

Recently, various school districts have been implementing policies banning the sale of junk foods on school grounds in response to the rapid increase of childhood obesity since the 1970s. However, a new study out of Pennsylvania State University shows no link between schools that sell junk food and children’s weight.

“We were really surprised by that result and, in fact, we held back from publishing our study for roughly two years because we kept looking for a connection that just wasn’t there,” Jennifer Van Hook, a Professor of Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study said to The Herald News.

In the study, titled “Competitive Food Sales in Schools and Childhood Obesity: A Longitudinal Study,” the authors used existing federal data sets that tracked 20,000 students’ behaviors from kindergarten in 1998 to eighth grade in 2006.

They found that while students’ access to junk food in schools increased dramatically between the fifth and eighth grade, the percentage of overweight students decreased. The percentage of students declined from 39.1 percent to 35.4 percent.

Additionally, a statistically insignificant decrease was found between the number of overweight students in schools that sold junk food versus schools that do not sell junk food, from 35.5 percent to 34.8 percent.

Because of this, the authors point to many other factors outside of schools to be contributors to the childhood obesity epidemic. Van Hook explained that schools are only a small portion of a child’s food environment, and that there are many other places that children get food and can pick up poor eating habits.

“They can get food at home, they can get food in their neighborhoods, and they can go across the street from the school to buy food. Additionally, kids are actually very busy at school...” Van Hook said in a statement issued by the American Sociological Association. “There really isn't a lot of opportunity for children to eat while they're in school, or at least eat endlessly, compared to when they're at home. As a result, whether or not junk food is available to them at school may not have much bearing on how much junk food they eat.”

However, in spite of this new information, many experts and politicians are not backing down from their positions on healthy foods in schools, as they see schools as a place that is very influential to a child’s attitudes, habits and behaviors.

Nancy Copperman, director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Great Neck, N.Y., said to Fox News that even though the study was rigorous, it did not examine what students were actually choosing and that future studies should look at what students are purchasing from vending machines.

She explained that while removing unhealthy choices may not have a physical impact on the student's weight, it may have a stronger impact in terms of health and nutrition education.

“A lot of times when you just take one thing by itself and you don’t put it in to a comprehensive program, you don’t find a lot of effects,” Copperman said.

Jillian Reed is a writer for 360 Education Solutions