TCS Daily


No Fizzy Drinks, Please...

By John Luik - October 17, 2005 12:00 AM

It isn't often that the Labour Party finds its policy template in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's California, but British Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's recent announcement that foods high in fat, salt or sugar are to be banned from school vending machines and meals from next autumn comes straight from the Terminator. Schwarzenegger has just signed legislation that restricts the sugar and fat content of foods in California schools, as well as bans the sale of all fizzy drinks. The trouble with Kelly's policy is that despite its California pedigree it is very much at odds with the most recent science on the link between children, "junk food" and obesity.

For example, a recent Canadian study looked at the eating and physical activity habits of 4,298 school children in an effort to determine which risk factors were important for overweight and obese children. The researchers included questions about whether the children ate breakfast, whether their lunch was brought from home or purchased at school, how often they ate in fast-food restaurants, whether there were regular family dinners and whether dinner was eaten in front of the television.

The results are startling, for they disprove so much of what passes for contemporary "wisdom" about childhood obesity. First, eating in a fast-food restaurant (which according to the Fat Police is the major source of childhood obesity) was not statistically significant as a risk factor for obesity, even in children who eat in such restaurants more than three times a week.

Second, the study found that there was not a statistically significant difference between the quantity of fizzy drinks consumed by children attending schools that did not sell fizzy drinks and those that did. Children in schools that sold fizzy drinks consumed an average of 4 cans of soda per week, while children at schools which did not sell fizzy drinks consumed 3.6 per week. This works out to 33.5 and 32.5 grams of sucrose per day, with the extra gram adding four calories for the kids where fizzy drinks were sold- an insignificant amount in terms of total daily caloric intake.

Third, there was not a statistically significant association between the availability of fizzy drinks at schools or schools with food vending machines and the risk of children being overweight or obese. As the authors noted: "We observed that children attending schools that sell soft drinks consumed somewhat more soft drinks and sugar, but the amounts were likely insufficient to bring about differences in body weight."

And these results are not a fluke. In early summer, researchers from the WHO Health Behavior in School-Aged Children Obesity Working Group published a study involving 137,000 schoolchildren in 34 countries (including 8,904 from the UK) which looked at the alleged connection between sweets and fizzy drink intake and obesity. What the researchers found was that in "91% of the countries examined, the frequency of sweets intake was lower in overweight than normal weight youth."

Even more importantly, the researchers discovered that there was a "negative relationship between the intake of sweets (candy, chocolate) and BMI classification in 31 out of the 34 countries such that higher sweets intake was associated with a lower odds of overweight." In other words, the children who eat larger amounts of so-called junk food actually had less chance of being overweight. Again, "Overweight status was not associated with the intake of fruits, vegetables, and soft drinks."

This research confirms several earlier studies that have also found that fizzy drinks do not cause childhood obesity. For example, a recent study in the International Journal of Obesity by six Harvard researchers which looked at the eating and physical activity habits of 14,000 US children aged 9-14 over a three year period found that snack food and fizzy drinks did not lead to overweight and obesity. However snack food was defined, with or without fizzy drinks, the researchers were unable to find any link between these foods and obesity. Moreover, the overweight children in the study were not found to be eating more snack foods and fizzy drinks than the thin children.

While the Canadian study and others have failed to find a connection between fizzy drinks and childhood obesity, they have found a striking association between obesity and children's physical activity levels in general and the frequency of physical education classes at their schools in particular. "Children attending schools with more frequent physical education classes," they write, "were increasingly more likely to have normal body weight."

As for physical activity in general, they note that "frequency of physical activity appears to be the only activity-related factor independently associated with overweight."

So if Ruth Kelly is serious about the connection between the schools and childhood obesity, perhaps instead of moving to some ill-considered California policy export she might give some thought not to taking something like fizzy drinks out of schools, but instead to putting something like physical activity back into them.

John Luik is a TCS contributing writer. He is working on a book about health policy.

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