Many U.S. states have been trying to slow the onward march of childhood obesity by creating laws that restrict the sale of junk food and sugary drinks in schools, and now a new study says those efforts may have worked. It’s the first study of its kind to look into whether school food rules are doing what they’re supposed to — promoting healthier lifestyles for kids.
The study in the journal Pediatrics says kids gained less weight from fifth through eight grades if they were living in states with strict and consistent school snack rules, as opposed to those schools without any laws governing how and what kids eat.
If kids started out by being obese or overweight in fifth grade, the study found that they would more likely be at a healthy weight by the time eighth grade rolled around if their state had strong laws clearly outlining the amounts of sugars and fats allowed in food sold outside mealtimes, reports USA Today. States that just sort of said, “food should be healthy” in the vaguest of terms were those deemed to have weak laws.
The more consistent the laws are from grade to grade, the more effective they’ll be, said the study’s authors. The study started in 2004 when kids were just about done with fifth grade and were ready to enter middle school. Heights and weights were measured then, and again in 2007 at the end of their eighth grade year.
States with strong laws that continued throughout elementary and middle school had around 39% of fifth-graders overweight at the start of the study, which fell to 34% by the end of eighth grade. Fifth-graders who were obese at the start accounted for 21% of students, which then dipped down to 18% by the study’s end.
As for those weak states, 37% were overweight and 21% were obese, with barely a tick in either direction by the time the study was over.
By no means does the study provide incontrovertible proof that kids’ weights were directly linked to these laws, but it’s a nice boost for health experts who’ve been trying to rid schools of junk food.
“This is the first real evidence that the laws are likely to have an impact,” said the director of the nutrition center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She’s the chair of a panel that is pushing for snack food standards in schools.