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Do Food Rewards Make Kids Overweight?

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Do Food Rewards Make Kids Overweight?

February 22, 2006 -- An article published in the December 2005 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine concluded that policies in schools that allow students to snack frequently; to consume high-calorie, low nutrient-dense foods and beverages; and to have food as incentives and rewards were associated with higher body mass indices in middle-school students. Martha Kubik, PhD, RN and colleagues from the University of Minnesota studied eighth graders in 16 schools for this report.

Key findings

The researchers measured food-related school policies and practices, guidelines and health promotion activities, as well as students’ BMIs. This resulted in the finding that students’ BMIs increased 10% for every additional food practice permitted in their school. A total of 8% of the students were categorized as overweight, and 15% were categorized as at risk for overweight.

Note that BMIs for children are interpreted differently than BMIs for adults, and the terms “overweight” and “at risk for overweight” are used, instead of “obese” and “overweight.” “Overweight” children exceed the 95th percentile for BMI-for-age, while “at risk for overweight” children fall between the 85th and 95th percentiles for BMI-for-age.

The researchers also found that the most prevalent food practice item was the use of food as incentive and rewards, found in 69% of the schools, followed by in-classroom fundraising, permitted in 56% of the schools. Thirty-one percent of the schools allowed food in the classroom, while 38% of schools allowed beverages for the children.

Interpreting the results

Although the researchers in this study only looked at eighth graders in 16 schools in one metropolitan area, these findings reflect many current concerns about the healthy school environment. Weight status in children is one of today’s most complex and challenging public health issues, with implications carrying into the future. School environmental factors have been at the heart of the debates on rising childhood weight concerns.

These results can be interpreted in the body of literature on nutrition, health and weight of children and adolescents to support progress towards developing “healthy school environments.” The healthy school environment includes not only foods and beverages served as part of the federally funded school meals programs, but also competitive foods sold in a la carte and vending programs, parties, rewards, fundraisers, extracurricular activities, etc.

Congress passed a provision in the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 mandating local school wellness policies in all local education authorities participating in the National School Lunch Program by June 2006. Among other components, these local school wellness policies must address nutrient standards for all foods and beverages available to students at school. This measure has helped bring the dialogue to a local level in many communities across the United States.

SNA support

SNA is part of the effort and the solution to improve school environments--and ultimately the health of our children. SNA members have served healthy foods through the federal school meals programs for decades. SNA is committed to supporting healthy school environments through healthier food and beverage options in the school environment in the following ways:

  • SNA fully supports local school wellness policies and has developed guidance for developing nutrient standards to ensure that all foods in vending machines and other outlets are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and meet local criteria for the healthy school environment. See Related Links to download these model policies.
  • SNA’s model local wellness policy guidelines also recommend that food not be used as a reward or punishment for student behaviors.
  • Since 1990, SNA has advocated the concept of nutrition integrity, “a level of performance that assures all foods and beverages available in schools are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and, when combined with nutrition education, physical activity and a healthy school environment, contribute to enhanced learning and the development of lifelong, healthy eating habits.”
  • SNA has been a key supporter and participant in the dialogue on healthy school environments. In 2003, SNA released a joint position paper with the American Dietetic Association and the Society for Nutrition Education on this topic. See Related Links to download this.
  • SNA advocates alternative fundraising programs and non-food rewards for students. SNA is generating a toolkit to be released in 2006 on alternative revenue sources to complement the healthy school environment concept and to meet the SNA model local school wellness policy guideline recommendations.

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