January 30, 2012
Nancy Copperman, RD
Think childhood obesity is on the rise because of junk food and soft drinks at school? Think again. In fact, exposure to unhealthy food at school is not associated with chubby children, according to a new report.
Published in Sociology of Education, the study followed almost 20,000 American children as they progressed from fifth to eighth grade. It found that the type of food sold in school vending machines and stores was not related to the children’s BMI (body mass index, a measure of body fat as it relates to height and weight). This particular study found that the biggest factor influencing children’s BMI in middle school is the food preferences and eating habits they established when they were younger. However, the study did not look at what food choices the individual children made at school or at home.
While one element, such as getting rid of junk food at schools, might not make a big difference in terms of a child’s BMI, it may have a greater influence when factored into a larger nutrition education program. Improving the school food environment--vending machines, school breakfast and lunch, and classroom snacks--serves to reinforce the nutrition and health education the children receive in the classroom. The findings suggest that efforts to prevent childhood obesity require a holistic approach that involves improved nutrition and increased physical activity both at school and at home.