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Schools prevent - not encourage - child obesity, study

By Eve Penhaligon , 01-Mar-2007

US school children are less susceptible to gain weight during school term than on vacation, according to a recent study.

The new research, conducted by the Ohio State University, will come as a breath of fresh air to schools, which have so far been under attack for exposing kids to 'unhealthy' products. Published in the April 2007 edition of The American Journal of Public Health, the study stressed that schools provide structured eating patterns, limited access to excessively calorific foods and beverages, and a fundamental education of the benefits of a balance diet, as well as encouraging sufficient exercise. In contrast, children on holiday are prone to weight gain when they do not have this order in their daily regime, said the researchers. The findings coincide with a period of heightened pressure from groups such as the American Heart Association (AHA) for schools to limit the availability of high-fat, high-sugar and low nutritional value food and drink products sold on campus. Industry has also responded to this mounting pressure, through initiatives that carry the double benefit of helping to improve children's diets, while also boosting brand popularity through an image of responsibility. Market leading beverage firms including the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Cadbury Schweppes have recently reached a voluntary consensus to halt sales of high calorie beverages in elementary and middle school vending machines, nationwide. Additionally, Kraft Foods, Mars, PepsiCo, Dannon, and the Campbell Soup Company have agreed to reformulate certain products and to introduce a new range of healthier snacks for kids. The move comes as part of an alliance designed to establish voluntary nutrition guidelines for snacks sold in the nation's schools. Initiatives such as these appear to be paying off, according to the new study. "When it comes to childhood obesity, schools appear to be more a part of the solution than the problem. The problem of childhood obesity would actually be much worse if children were not in school," commented Douglas Downey, co-author of the report. The report analyzes how the body mass index (BMI) of 5,380 students fluctuated throughout the academic year. At Kindergarten level, BMI scores were shown to increase abruptly, three times faster than during vacation and twice as fast during the first-grade school year. But the researchers stress that efforts to provide healthier foods in schools still need to continue. "The results don't mean that schools can't do a better job," said Paul von Hippel, research statistician in sociology at Ohio State University. "Schools can ensure that they have healthier choices available in vending machines and continue to improve the nutrition values of lunches but we shouldn't be surprised if these changes have a relatively small impact on childhood obesity. The major part of the problem is outside school," he added. This research represents yet another push for a more comprehensive and united response from all sectors of society to take responsibility and respond to the escalating rates of child obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children considered to be overweight doubled from 7 percent to 14 percent between 1981 and 2001. And the most recent figures from the American Obesity Association reveal that around 16 percent of US children are currently classed as obese.

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