Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children in the last 30 years. In 2012, more than one-third of children were overweight or obese—often the result of poor diet and a lack of exercise. That’s why experts recently came up with new policies to improve the nutritional value of school meals.
Not long ago, most schools sold items like soda, candy and chips, which tend to compete with healthier food choices. These items are filled with sugar, fat and calories and have been linked to unhealthy diets and weight gain in many studies.
To help prevent childhood obesity, 75% of states and many schools have since restricted the sale of such items. Many schools have also made important changes to school meals, reducing calorie, fat and sugar content and setting standards for portion sizes.
To assess the impact of these policies on obesity rates, researchers analyzed data from California elementary schools between 2001 and 2010. California has implemented some of the most comprehensive school lunch policies in the nation and as such, serves as an ideal location for this type of study.
Using existing data, researchers compared the weight of fifth-grade students who attended California public elementary schools each year from 2001 to 2010. In total, more than 2.7 million students from 5,362 schools were included in the study.
Between 2001 and 2005, before school lunch policies were implemented, overweight and obesity rates steadily increased each year and overall, 43.5% of students were considered overweight or obese. But after policies were put in place to improve school lunches, obesity rates significantly slowed among all schools. By 2010, just over 45% of students were overweight or obese, suggesting that policies helped curb increases in overweight and obesity rates.
According to researchers, the only catch was that improvements in obesity rates in low-income neighborhoods tapered off over time. While trends continued to improve in the five years following the new lunch policies in well-off areas, these benefits vanished over time in low-income neighborhoods.
The good news is that improving school lunches may help promote a healthy weight among students. In this study, limiting the availability of junk foods and improving the nutritional value of school meals helped curb the rise in obesity rates in California elementary schools. However, it’s likely that in poorer neighborhoods, changing school lunches isn’t enough to fight rising obesity rates. It’s well-established that overweight and obesity are disproportionately high in areas with low income and education levels. Therefore, extra efforts are likely needed to reduce disparities and combat obesity rates in low-income neighborhoods.