SF State News {University Communications}

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New school policies may help stem obesity rates

March 2, 2010 -- Eliminate sugary beverages and unhealthful foods from public schools and the rate of obesity among students could level off, according to a study conducted by Assistant Professor of Health Education Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh.

Photo of plastic cup beverage and fast food burger.Eliminating sugary beverages and unhealthful food from public schools can slow the growing rate of obesity among students in the U.S. (c) Efrain Diaz/PhotoXpress

As a scholar and mother of two, Sanchez-Vaznaugh is concerned about food as a factor that can influence childhood health. Because children eat at least one meal a day in school, she feels the setting is a significant influence toward lifelong behaviors. Although policymakers cannot directly influence student behavior, Sanchez-Vaznaugh believes that governmental policies can help define the environment in which children learn to make food choices and thus shape the behaviors that influence overweight trends in entire student populations. She and three colleagues combed through nearly a decade of California public school student weight and height records to support this belief. 

The study, which was published in the March issue of Health Affairs, a leading peer-reviewed U.S. health policy journal, examined data collected by the State of California, which implemented policies in 2004 to remove sugary beverages from elementary and middle schools. The researchers also put a narrower focus on schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest public school district in the country, which implemented the policy with additional restrictions including new standards for portion sizes.

California Department of Education records revealed an upward trend of overweight individuals among fifth and seventh-grade boys and girls in Los Angeles and the rest of California between the years 2001-05. When the researchers compared this data against the 2005-08 records, after the policies were implemented, they found that the increase in the number of overweight students throughout the Los Angeles fifth-grade student body significantly slowed. The numbers also dropped among fifth-grade boys and seventh-grade students of both sexes throughout California. There were no significant trend changes among seventh-grade students in Los Angeles and fifth-grade girls throughout California.

Federal policymakers recently declared childhood and teen obesity a health education priority. Childhood obesity is increasingly prevalent in the U.S., with obesity rates more than tripling over the last 30 years. Today, one in three children is either overweight or obese. Last year, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers reported the first leveling out of these rates. However, this study provided no reasons why trends might have stalled.

"Our study is one of the very first comprehensive investigations that examined whether childhood obesity trends changed after new state-wide policies were enacted in California," said Sanchez-Vaznaugh. "This study helps us to begin to understand the potential of state food and beverage policies pertaining to overweight children in our schools." But she notes that California still has a long way to go. She points to school campus proximity -- particularly in poorer neighborhoods -- to stores selling unhealthful foods and beverages that stand in opposition to nutritional objectives set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Limited resources and budget cuts hamper schools from offering healthful, good-tasting alternatives and physical education programs.

''Obesity is still high and, on average, only about 40 percent of the children in our study are considered physically fit," Sanchez-Vaznaugh said.  

In addition to teaching at SF State, Sanchez-Vaznaugh is a Kellogg Health Scholar at the University of California, San Francisco's Center on Social Disparities in Health. The study's senior author was Patricia Crawford, director of the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health at University of California, Berkeley. Co-investigators were Brisa Sanchez and Jonggyu Baek from the University of Michigan.

"'Competitive' food and beverage policies: are they influencing childhood overweight trends?" can be viewed at the Health Affairs Web site.


-- Denize Springer


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