Schools that cut fat and sugar saw dramatic results

Globe and Mail, April 22, 2008 at 9:06 AM EDT

Schools that get rid of high-fat snacks and soda may see quick results in the battle to prevent children from becoming overweight, new research shows.

A Temple University study, published in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics, found that schools that overhauled their nutrition policies saw a 50-per-cent reduction in new cases of overweight children in two years.

The growing rates of overweight and obese children have driven researchers to get outside of the health clinic and into the schools to study solutions, the study's lead researcher, Gary Foster, said in a statement. "We focused on school because children spend most of their lives there and eat at least one if not two meals there."

The study was conducted with 1,349 students in Philadelphia over a two-year period, looking at the results of 10 elementary schools that had adopted a revamped nutrition policy and five comparison schools. Under the revised policy, developed by the Food Trust, a non-profit organization, soda was replaced with water, fruit juice and low-fat milk; snacks were capped at 7 grams of total fat and 2 grams of saturated fat; and candy was eliminated.

Additionally, students received 50 hours of nutrition education a year and were rewarded with raffle tickets for prizes such as jump ropes and bicycles. The program also involved parent education.

Only 7.5 per cent of the students became overweight in the schools that transformed their nutrition policies - compared with 15 per cent in the control group. The number of new and existing obese students was constant at both sets of schools, suggesting different measures might be more successful for obese children.

While the changes were able to reduce the incidence of new cases of overweight in the students, Dr. Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia, says more needs to be done, such as intensifying physical education in schools and even trying to convince nearby corner stores to stock healthy and single-serving snacks.

Canadian observers say the findings support efforts being made here to encourage healthy eating in schools.

Last week, the Ontario government announced legislation banning trans fats in schools. Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said Dr. Foster's study is very encouraging to proponents of those efforts. It builds on a policy banning junk food in elementary vending machines - she says 97 per cent of the province's schools have complied - and increasing daily physical activity.

"This kind of research strengthens what we're trying to do here," Ms. Wynne said. "And it supports what we've already done."

Not that it's a hard sell to parents or educators. "This is something school communities want to do," she said. "It isn't a push for them."

While the Philadelphia study shows a nutrition makeover can work, physical activity should also be a high priority for elementary schools, said Marla Gold, director of McGill University's Cardiovascular Health Improvement Program in Montreal, which runs a summer program for teens to improve their eating and physical activity habits.

Physical activity should be more than the typical hour a week, and it shouldn't focus solely on sports, she added.

"They need to be lifelong activities in addition to sports and fitness," she said.

And, as the study found, parental involvement is crucial, she said. Often kids who are overweight also have inactive and overweight parents. Psychological support and group therapy are also important.