When we were raising my two daughters, many people thought my wife and I went overboard by keeping them on a vegetarian diet filled with healthy, organic foods. We knew that when they reached adulthood, they’d be free to make up their own minds as to how and what they would eat, but we felt it was important to get them started on the right foot rather than have them automatically adopt the “normal” junk food approach.
Since both turned out to be smart, capable, and healthy women (absolutely true — even allowing for a father’s natural bias), I guess we made the right decision. But I have to admit, things were somewhat easier back then. At least the school halls didn’t have vending machines dispensing Pepsi and Twinkies. That bit of commercialization may have generated income for schools, but it’s caused a host of health problems.
In fact, a study from the University of Michigan Medical School, found that school children who consume foods purchased in vending machines are more likely to develop poor diet quality — and that may be associated with being overweight, obese or at risk for chronic health problems such as diabetes and coronary artery disease.
The study (published in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of School Health) also looked at foods sold in school stores, snack bars, and other related sales that compete with USDA lunch program offerings and found that these pose the same health and diet risks in school-aged children.
“The foods that children are exposed to early on in life influence the pattern for their eating habits as adults,” said lead study author Madhuri Kakarala, MD, PhD, clinical lecturer of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School.
Previous studies assessing the nutritional value of school lunches and the impact they have on children’s overall health have found similar results, but this study is the first to look specifically at competitive foods and beverages — those sold at snack bars or vending machines rather than through the USDA lunch program.
Researchers analyzed data from 2,309 children in grades 1 through 12 from schools across the country. Interviewers administered questionnaires to obtain 24-hour food intake data on a given school day. Second-day food intake data was obtained from a group of students to account for day-to-day usual intakes.
Among those surveyed, 22% of school children consumed competitive or vended food items in a school day. Usage was highest in high school, where 88% of schools had vending machines, compared to 52% of middle schools and 16% of elementary schools. Competitive food and beverage consumers had significantly higher sugar intakes and lower dietary fiber, vitamin B levels, and iron intakes than non-consumers.
Soft drinks accounted for more than two-thirds of beverages offered in school vending machines and stores. Desserts and fried snacks were the most commonly consumed vended items among elementary school children and beverages other than milk and fruit juice were the most commonly consumed items among middle and high school students. Other frequently consumed vended foods included candy, snack chips, crackers, cookies, cakes, and ice cream.
“Consumption of vended foods and beverages currently offered in U.S. schools is detrimental to children’s diet quality,” said Kakarala. “Childhood obesity, resulting from poor dietary choices, such as those found in this study, greatly increases the risk for many chronic diseases. A healthy school food environment can reduce these dietary risks.”
Since it’s difficult to expect kids to resist the temptation to drop a few quarters into these machines, we need to lobby our schools to either eliminate them altogether, or make sure they offer only healthful choices.
SOURCE: Journal of School Health, Vol. 80, No. 9, September 2010