Healthy Eating: Changing School Environment Curbs Weight Gain In Children, Study Shows

By Laura Brooks on 09/08/2008
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With kids back to school, many parents are concerned about how schools teach nutrition in the classroom and model it in the lunchroom.  Many schools have taken measures to ensure healthy eating options are available to their students, and have also limited availability of sodas and junkfood in vending machines.

In a recent press release, in fact, Maryland schools are now providing an organic and natural products vending machine called the YoZone created by YoNaturals Inc.

According to a study published in Pediatrics last April, these types of small changes in schools can result in big steps towards preventing childhood obesity. School-based interventions, researchers find, can reduce the incidence of overweight by up to 50 percent and even provide an effective means of preventing childhood weight gain and obesity on a large scale.

“The increasing prevalence and serious consequences of childhood obesity have pushed us to find solutions that go beyond the clinic and reach greater numbers of children,” said lead author Gary Foster, Ph.D., director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University. “We focused on school because children spend most of their lives there and eat at least one if not two meals there.”

10 K-8 schools in Philadelphia participated in the two-year study, five of which implemented a multi-faceted nutrition policy formulated by The Food Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to accessible and affordable nutritious food for the public. The remaining schools operated as normal for a control group.

“We incorporated healthy eating into every part of the school day in order to have a greater impact on the students,” said Sandy Sherman, Ed.D., director of nutrition education at The Food Trust. “The intervention fundamentally changed the school environment.”

The weight, height and physical activity of nearly 1400 students in grades 4 through 6 were followed before and after the intervention, (also called the School Nutrition Policy Initiative), which included the following components: school self-assessment, nutrition education, nutrition policy, social marketing and parent outreach.

Nutrition policy

Soda was replaced with water, 100 percent fruit juice and low-fat milk. Snacks were capped at 7 grams of total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 360 milligrams of sodium and 15 grams of sugar per serving. Candy was eliminated from the school premises.

Nutrition education

Teachers received 10 hours of training in teaching nutrition, and students received 50 hours of nutrition education over the course of the year.

Social marketing

Kids were rewarded for healthy snacking and encouraged to save their appetites for healthy meals. Nutritious snacks and drinks earned them raffle tickets to win prizes.

Family outreach

Nutrition educators encouraged parents and students to purchase healthy eating snacks. Students were challenged to be less sedentary and more physically active, and to eat more fruits and vegetables.

In the control group, 15 percent of children became overweight during the 2 year period as compared to only 7.5 percent of children in intervention schools. Researchers recommend that, despite the interventions’ successful results, stronger or additional interventions and prevention programs may need to be implemented before the 4th grade.

One significant finding was that African American children benefited overall as a group, which is significant considering that rates of childhood obesity are disproportionately higher in urban schools.

“In some inner-city neighborhoods, it’s safer to stay inside after school than to go outside and play. When money is tight, it’s cheaper to feed your kids convenience foods, which are usually higher in fat and calories. Multiple environmental factors are responsible for .. childhood obesity…,” said Foster.

The Food Trust is currently working with Temple University in Philadelphia on a corner store initiative to improve the access and quality of nutritious foods and snacks in that area.

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