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Claire Moshenberg's picture

What makes it more likely that an overweight or obese 5th grader won't remain obese by the 8th grade? Location, location, location!

A recent study in the Archive of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine by Bridging the Gap shows that an overweight or obese 5th grader who lives in a state with strong laws that restrict the sale of unhealthy snacks and beverages in schools is less likely to remain so by the 8th grade than their peers in states without these laws.

Researchers observed children and teens for three years, and found that students in schools with strong snack food and beverage laws gained less weight as they got older.

So what makes a strong snack food and beverage law? It's simple: A state law that requires schools to only sell snacks that meet specific nutrition standards. Weak policies, on the other hand, are those that only recommend schools make changes and don't have specific nutritional guidelines. And the results prove which guidelines are working: Kids and teens in states with weak school snack and beverage policies experienced the same increase in their body mass indices (BMIs) as students in states with no policies.

It can be hard for kids to ignore the siren song of candy, soda, ice cream, fries, burgers and chips, especially when they're prominently displayed every day in school vending machines and à la carte lines. Those junk foods compete against healthy snack options like fruits and veggies for kids' attention.

"Companies know that they are creating the palates of the child's lifetime if they get in now," says Alison Crockett, a mom who found cookies marauding as breakfast when she visited her child's cafeteria. "If they get them hooked on their sweet, salty, fatty products, that's what they will crave for their entire lives. [Parents] are training our children for habits for a long, healthy life."

"I just think it's a huge mistake to think snack = dessert. And I have to admit, my pet peeve is when snacks = sweet baked goods," says Cynthia Liu. She conducted a mini experiment during snack time at her son's Chinese school: Instead of bringing in the customary Capri-Suns and sugary snacks, she set out a plate of apple slices and veggies. The result? The kids "GOBBLED THE APPLE SLICES AND VEGETABLES like they were going out of style. They. Were. Happy."

Moms like Alison and Cynthia know that starting healthy snacking habits early is important for kids' health. The good news is that there are states that are catching on to what moms already know. Some states are paying attention and swapping junky snacks and sugary drinks with nutritious replacements. Some states have passed laws that prohibit schools from selling certain unhealthy foods or drinks, or that set limits for the fat, salt, sugar or calorie content of items.

While it's great that some states are making positive strides, the national standards on snack foods and beverages in schools are extremely limited, which jeopardizes the health of kids in states with weak or nonexistent policies. Improving the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks can help to reduce children's risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses -- a critical goal at a time when nearly one in three kids in the United States is overweight or obese. Cynthia's successful apple slice snack wasn't an exception: A growing number of schools across the country already have proven that students will buy healthier snacks and beverages when junk food is removed.

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