Junk food does not cause child obesity? Is that so?

A new study has suggested that junk food in schools does not promote childhood obesity. Do you agree?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

A new study has been released that ascertains junk food is not a cause for obesity in children.

In a culture where childhood obesity is consistently rising, and various public figures have campaigned for years to try and limit it -- such as a 'fat tax' on soda and bans on candy and junk food being sold in schools, research still tries to 'justify' food choices schools make for the sake of speed and lower prices.

The study, "Competitive Food Sales in Schools and Childhood Obesity: A Longitudinal Study," has been recently published in the journal Sociology of Education. Childhood obesity has tripled in the U.S. over the last 30 years.

Approximately 20,000 students from kindergarten through to eighth grade in 1,000 public and private schools were tracked for the study.

The researchers found that there was no increase in the percentage of students who were overweight or obese between their fifth-grade and eighth-grade years. In fact, those numbers dropped from 39.1 percent to 35.4 percent. However, in the eighth grade, 35.5 percent of kids in schools that offered junk food were overweight, while 34.8 percent of those in schools without it were overweight.

This small increase is seen as 'statistically insignificant'.

"Schools only represent a small portion of children's food environment." says Jennifer Van Hook, the sociology professor who led the study.

Centering the research on soft drinks, candy and chips -- all of which are formally called 'competitive foods', the study indicated that the presence of such foods in schools is not the sole cause for childhood obesity. It isn't, but that doesn't justify it being sold in the first place. The study says:

"Employing fixed effects models and a natural experimental approach, they found that children's weight gain between fifth and eighth grades was not associated with the introduction or the duration of exposure to competitive food sales in middle school."

By placing junk food in schools, you are not only making access to high sugar and salt content food and drink freely available, you are promoting a behavioural trend in eating these kinds of foods. There are few schools that offer 'healthy' options -- so in turn, you not only encourage unhealthy habits as children are in adolescence, schools offer no alternatives.

The study argues against this -- stating that a child's eating habits are fixed by the time they reach middle school, and therefore the presence of vending machines will not sway them from their ingrained preferences anyway.

So instead of putting healthy options within an environment children attend for hours a day, we should take the approach that 'they are already overweight, their habits are fixed' and let it be, rather than encourage them to make better food choices?

If a child is hungry, which is likely to happen in the 9 hours or so they attend school, then they will find food. If the quickest access to food available is in the guise of a chocolate bar or packet of crisps, then children will eat it. By placing such foods within their reach, school districts are sending the message that it is acceptable to eat every day. This kind of tacit approval is probably not a positive one to send.

Image credit: Ernesto Andrade/Flickr

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