Study: Schools contribute to childhood obesity

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Childhood obesity is on the minds of many people these days, and there are countless reasons why it has become such a problem. In the United States, 15 percent of children and teens are at risk of being overweight and another 15 percent are overweight. Altogether, nearly 9 million children are affected by overweight and obesity.

Kids have ample opportunity to consume many more calories than they need each day, from larger portions and meals on the go to accessible sugary snacks and drinks. More sedentary lifestyles have contributed, too. Now it turns out that schools also play a role in this alarming trend.

A recent University of Minnesota study found that students who attended schools that allowed certain food practices tended to have, on average, a higher body mass index (BMI). BMI is the ratio of height to weight health providers use to determine if someone is overweight. The study looked at seven practices, such as whether the school allowed students to eat or drink in the classroom or hallway, if teachers and school staff used food as a reward or incentive for students, and whether food was used in school and classroom fundraising.

After surveying more than 3,000 children at 16 urban and suburban middle schools in the Twin Cities metro area, the study found an average 10 percent increase in BMI for each additional food practice that was allowed. All seven practices were widespread, which collectively gave some students the opportunity to eat and drink throughout the school day.

Nearly 500 teachers surveyed reported that it was common to use food as a motivator in the classroom. Seventy percent said they had offered candy as a reward or incentive and more than one-third used sweetened beverages, pizza, or donuts.

School-based a la carte programs and vending machines are another area of concern. At schools that had a la carte–style cafeterias—where students can pick and chose items to eat—students reported eating fewer fruits and vegetables and had higher fat intakes. And when snack vending machines were added to the mix, students’ fruit consumption dropped 11 percent, according to another University of Minnesota study conducted in the same middle schools.

Both studies underline the impact that school policies can have on the health and weight of students. Young people spend the bulk of their days at school, making it a crucial environment for learning healthy eating habits and practicing healthy food choice. School is a place students can learn to make decisions about their diets that will shape their future eating habits.

To get schools on the right track, students, parents, teachers, and administrators should work together to assure that students are offered healthy, appealing foods at school. Parents need to ask what food practices are allowed at their children’s school. They also should work to ensure the school provides a healthy food environment that helps students develop sound eating practices—both for now and later in life.

Martha Kubik, Ph.D., R.N., is an assistant professor in the School of Nursingthe University of Minnesota. This column is an educational service of the University of Minnesota. Advice presented should not take the place of an examination by a health-care professional. For more health-related information, go to http://www.healthtalk.umn.edu.Childhood obesity is on the minds of many people these days, and there are countless reasons why it has become such a problem. In the United States, 15 percent of children and teens are at risk of being overweight and another 15 percent are overweight. Altogether, nearly 9 million children are affected by overweight and obesity.

Kids have ample opportunity to consume many more calories than they need each day, from larger portions and meals on the go to accessible sugary snacks and drinks. More sedentary lifestyles have contributed, too. Now it turns out that schools also play a role in this alarming trend.

A recent University of Minnesota study found that students who attended schools that allowed certain food practices tended to have, on average, a higher body mass index (BMI). BMI is the ratio of height to weight health providers use to determine if someone is overweight. The study looked at seven practices, such as whether the school allowed students to eat or drink in the classroom or hallway, if teachers and school staff used food as a reward or incentive for students, and whether food was used in school and classroom fundraising.

After surveying more than 3,000 children at 16 urban and suburban middle schools in the Twin Cities metro area, the study found an average 10 percent increase in BMI for each additional food practice that was allowed. All seven practices were widespread, which collectively gave some students the opportunity to eat and drink throughout the school day.

Nearly 500 teachers surveyed reported that it was common to use food as a motivator in the classroom. Seventy percent said they had offered candy as a reward or incentive and more than one-third used sweetened beverages, pizza, or donuts.

School-based a la carte programs and vending machines are another area of concern. At schools that had a la carte–style cafeterias—where students can pick and chose items to eat—students reported eating fewer fruits and vegetables and had higher fat intakes. And when snack vending machines were added to the mix, students’ fruit consumption dropped 11 percent, according to another University of Minnesota study conducted in the same middle schools.

Both studies underline the impact that school policies can have on the health and weight of students. Young people spend the bulk of their days at school, making it a crucial environment for learning healthy eating habits and practicing healthy food choice. School is a place students can learn to make decisions about their diets that will shape their future eating habits.

To get schools on the right track, students, parents, teachers, and administrators should work together to assure that students are offered healthy, appealing foods at school. Parents need to ask what food practices are allowed at their children’s school. They also should work to ensure the school provides a healthy food environment that helps students develop sound eating practices—both for now and later in life.


Martha Kubik, Ph.D., R.N., is an assistant professor in the School of Nursingthe University of Minnesota. This column is an educational service of the University of Minnesota. Advice presented should not take the place of an examination by a health-care professional. For more health-related information, go to “http://www.healthtalk.umn.edu”:http://www.healthtalk.umn.edu.

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