Conservative politicians decry legislation that targets junk food and sugar-sweetened soft drinks as government overreach. However, last month a study showed that a New York City trans fat ban was helping New Yorkers make healthier food choices. And another study now suggests that states with strong laws prohibiting junk food in schools is helping lower childhood obesity rates.
Competitive food laws
Nearly 20 percent of elementary school children nationwide are obese according to recent data. The obesity rate for teens is only slightly lower. Competitive food laws are a way states are attempting to curb childhood obesity. Competitive food laws regulate the nutrition content of food and beverages sold to children that compete with school lunches. Products that don’t conform to nutrition standards set in the laws are banned from the schools.
Researchers at the University of Chicago have published results from an investigation of the effectiveness of competitive food laws over time. They say their study, published online in the journal Pediatrics, is the first to produce evidence that laws curbing the sale of junk food and sweetened drinks in schools are getting positive results.
Strong laws vs. weak laws
The researchers analyzed data collected from 6,300 students in 40 states. Their body mass indexes were measured in 2004 when the students were finishing fifth grade and again in the spring of 2007 when they were eight graders.
The student data was compared with an analysis of state competitive food laws regulating student nutrition during the same time period. Laws were rated as “strong” if they included specific requirements, such as limiting calories from sugars and fats. Laws rated as weak lacked specifics about nutrition standards and simply encouraged schools to offer healthier food.
Smaller increases in BMI
In states with strong competitive food laws for elementary and middle schools, nearly 39 percent of the fifth graders in the study group were overweight and 21 percent were obese. By the time the students reached eighth grade 34 percent were overweight and 18 percent were obese. In states with weak school junk food laws or no laws about 37 percent of the fifth graders were overweight and 21 percent were obese. Those percentages were virtually unchanged by eighth grade.
A national trend
According to the researchers, 27 of the 40 states examined had no school junk food laws in 2003. During the next few years several states enacted stronger laws as concern rose nationally over the childhood obesity epidemic. All states that added new laws or strengthened existing laws had reductions in overweight students ranging from 2.8 to 4.5 percent.
Southern states take the lead
Every study has its critics, and Mark Glickman of Boston University told USA Today that the research has flaws that stand in the way of convincing evidence. He mentioned that stronger competitive food laws could be more prevalent in Democratic-leaning states with better-educated populations as an example. However, lead study author Daniel Taber noted that several red-meat-Republican southern states with the highest rates of obesity have been the most aggressive at targeting school junk food and are getting the best results from their laws.