That vending machine in your child’s school may have less influence on your child’s weight (and on a larger scale, the childhood obesity epidemic) than previously thought. Results of study published in the January issue of the journal Sociology of Education show that junk food sold in vending machines or snack bars does not actually impact a child’s risk of chances of obesity and weight gain.
The study followed 20,000 students for eight years, from the fall of kindergarten through the spring of eighth grade, in 1,000 public and private schools where junk food was sold as well as those where it wasn’t and found no significant increase in obesity between schools (35.5 percent of kids in schools with junk food were overweight while 34.8 percent of those in schools without it were overweight).
If you’re surprised by these results, you’re not alone. Jennifer Van Hook, a Professor of Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study, expresses an equal confusion in a statement issued by the American Sociological Association: “We were really surprised by that result and, in fact, we held back from publishing our study for roughly two years because we kept looking for a connection that just wasn't there.”
It seems expected that our children’s schools have an effect on almost everything in a child’s life, from social constructions to career aspirations, so why not their diet? Van Hook continues, “There really isn't a lot of opportunity for children to eat while they're in school, or at least eat endlessly, compared to when they're at home. As a result, whether or not junk food is available to them at school may not have much bearing on how much junk food they eat.” Students have a more regimented agenda with limited meal and snack time, and therefore less opportunity to indulge in mindless or continuous eating patterns. The looser schedule and more flexible distribution of food at home give children more opportunities to overindulge in snacks or help themselves to bigger portions, which seems to have a stronger influence on weight gain.
These findings may ultimately lead funding for anti-obesity campaigns to target home life instead of school, and to focus on helping younger children make healthy choices from the beginning. "There has been a lot of research showing that many children develop eating habits and tastes for certain types of foods when they are of preschool age, and that those habits and tastes may stay with them for their whole lives," Van Hook explains. "So, their middle school environments might not matter a lot."
Are you concerned about fostering healthy eating habits at home? Do you have rules about limited snacking or requirements to try new foods?