Newswise — It seems like a no-brainer, and it is: Take the junk food out of school vending machines and cafeterias, and kids will eat less junk food, according to a new study that took place in Connecticut.

When schools started removing low nutritional value snack foods and soft drinks as options, some claimed there would be a “forbidden fruit phenomenon” and that kids would go home and eat twice as much.

Instead, “we found that when you take soda and high-fat snacks out of schools, students did not compensate at home. Instead, they ate better at school and no worse at home,” said lead study author Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

Schwartz explained that financial pressure from both the food industry, looking to build brand loyalty, and the schools, which get a cut of the profits from vending machines, is the main reason there is opposition to removing soft drinks and junk foods.

The study, published in the December issue of the journal Health Education & Behavior, looked at six middle schools over two years. In the three target schools, snacks meeting current nutrition standards in Connecticut (including water, 100 percent fruit juice, baked chips, pretzels, granola bars and canned fruit) replaced items that did not meet the standards (including potato chips, doughnuts, sweetened sports drinks, soda, snack cakes and cookies). The foods at the three comparison schools remained the same.

“Junk food is not something to be taken lightly,” said Joel Fuhrman, M.D., a family physician, nutritional researcher and author. He said that soft drinks are addicting and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recognizes that children today are expected to live shorter life spans than their parents are, due at least in part to nutrition-related conditions like heart disease and cancer.

Schwartz and Fuhrman agree that even the replacement foods allowed by the state — while healthier — were not necessarily the best options. For example, Fuhrman noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend feeding children fruit juice, because of its contribution to obesity and diabetes. “In other words,” he said “even the foods that weren’t as bad, they weren’t health foods.”

“We live in a society where it is easy, cheap, and convenient to eat unhealthy foods, and difficult to eat healthy foods,” Schwartz said. “It’s been this way for so long that many people consider this normal. It’s not — schools need to be a safe haven for children that sell healthy foods children need to eat more of, not the unhealthy foods we tell children to limit.”

Health Education & Behavior, a peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), publishes research on critical health issues for professionals in the implementation and administration of public health information programs. For information, contact Laura Drouillard at (202) 408-9804.

Schwartz MB, et al. The impact of removing snacks of low nutritional value from middle schools. Health Education & Behavior 36(6), 2009

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Health Education & Behavior (36(6), Dec-2009)