School food bans won’t stop obesity

A recent study in Sociology of Education found there was virtually no difference in the child obesity rate in schools that had banned vending machines selling soda and snacks, compared to those that had not banned them.

Schools are easy to blame for child obesity because (1) children spend so much of their day there, and (2) they are an easy target for grandstanding politicians who want to believe they are doing something about the problem.

This study reinforces other research that indicates school food is not the answer. A 2011 study found that students who do not have access to soda in schools compensate by drinking more at home.

The results of a major National Institutes of Health study targeting 5,106 schoolchildren in 56 schools in four states  were typical. Researchers did all of the things that policymakers say the schools should do: They introduced health education for pupils and their families, increased physical activity and lowered fat content in school lunches and vending machines. The result: no effect on weight.

School interventions generally are negated by whatever happens at home. Why? The parents are overweight, and poor nutrition and genetic tendencies clearly run in the family. If the causes of childhood obesity were easy to isolate, solutions would not be so elusive. However, it is a complex web of genetics, psychology, technology, sedentary lifestyle and diet that conspire to fan the flame. The two major factors are inactivity and an abundance of readily available, calorie-rich food. One-third of children eat fast food on a typical day, and only 8 percent of adolescents achieve recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. It is not that complicated.

Doctors, parents and overweight children

Less than 1 out of 4 parents of overweight children recall ever being told by a physician that their child was overweight. It could be because the doctor has given up. Ample research shows that parents rarely acknowledge their overweight children are … well, overweight.

Child obesity has emerged as the No. 1 health problem for children.

The child obesity rate has been growing three times faster than that of adults. Over the last 30 years, the obesity rate has doubled for preschool children aged 2 to 5 and adolescents aged 12 to 19. It has more than tripled for children aged 6 to 11 years.

 About 45 percent of poor children are obese, which is about twice the rate for children in middle- and upper-class households. However, the epidemic affects boys and girls and affects all ages, races and ethnic groups.

Nearly 3 out of 4 obese children have at least one additional risk factor for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Increases in obesity have fueled a dramatic rise in type 2 diabetes. In some communities, youth account for nearly half of the new cases of type 2 diabetes.

Child obesity largely stems from too little exercise and eating too much of the wrong foods. Two-thirds of adults are obese or overweight and often serve as poor role models. About 2 out of 3 children aged 6 to 19 do not get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise, and about 1 out of 4 adolescents get none. Sugar-sweetened beverages comprise about 11 percent of children’s total calorie consumption. Each average daily serving increases a child’s obesity risk by 60 percent. Preschool children are consuming an average of 186 more calories a day than three decades ago, and more than a quarter of those come from snacks.

Genetics and home environment also plays roles. An obese preschool child with normal-weight parents has a 25 percent chance of being an obese adult. That risk rises to 60 percent if one of the parents is obese.

The direct costs of child obesity are more than $14 billion annually, including prescriptions and visits to emergency departments and physicians.  The average annual cost of treating childhood diabetes is $10,800, which is $2,000 more than the annual cost of treating a case of adult diabetes.

Obesity’s greatest financial burden is a lifetime of medical care for resulting chronic conditions. The rise in obesity accounted for more than one-quarter of the rise in health-care spending between 1987 and 2002. Adults who were obese or overweight as adolescents are much more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and arthritis, even if they lose weight later in life. One researcher calculated it would be cost effective to spend $2 billion a year to reduce obesity among 12-year-olds by 1 percent because of lifetime obesity treatment costs.