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Banning Junk Food In Schools Will Not Reduce Obesity Among Kids

02/06/2017 7:47 AM IST | Updated 02/06/2017 7:47 AM IST
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When I was in school, I ate an average of 4 vada pavs a week, mostly during the school recess. It was pretty much the school's signature snack. I was also borderline obese for the majority of my childhood. I eventually did lose the weight, but I do think that, even if those vada pavs had not been available, I might not have been much better off.

The Maharashtra government recently banned the sale of High Fat, Sugar and Salt (HFSS) food products in school canteens. The move was praised by experts as an important measure to reduce childhood obesity. But can a ban on junk food in schools have a significant effect by itself?

There appears to be conflicting research on the effectiveness of a junk food ban, in the absence of other measures. According to one study, a school environment that promotes healthy eating is essential to combat marketing of unhealthy food, and can have a positive impact on kids' food habits. Another study found evidence that reducing junk food sales in schools reduced the likelihood that kids would be overweight or obese by 18 percent. However, there is also evidence that suggests that a junk food ban in schools might not be very effective, at least not on its own.

Banning junk food in school canteens may look like a great move, but unless we identify exactly what constitutes 'junk' food, it isn't going to be very effective

A 2006 study concluded that removing unhealthy food from schools might not be enough to improve students' diets overall. It recommended a coordinated, multi-level approach, which included steps such as nutrition education, physical education, as well as parental involvement.

I also came across an article which outlined both sides of the argument about whether or not junk food should be banned in schools. An important point, underscoring the futility of a ban, pointed out that identifying what constituted junk food can pose a problem. The article was written in an American context but I think the point applies to India too. For instance, vada pav, pizzas, chips, and burgers are categorized as junk and banned but food preparations such as poha and upma are not. These staple Indian preparations are high in simple carbs, have practically no protein, very poor micro-nutrient diversity and therefore have very low nutritive value. However, they are not considered junk food. In fact, I've read articles where they've been suggested as healthy alternatives to junk food. Even the alternative food recommendations suggested to schools by the Maharashtra government include wheat upma (protein and micronutrient poor) and payasam (which is generally high in sugar). The emphasis needs to shift to balanced foods or foods that are otherwise high in nutritive value, such as protein and micro-nutrient rich foods that also deliver adequate energy.

Childhood obesity has become a huge problem in India and one that's growing larger.

Childhood obesity has become a huge problem in India and one that's growing larger (no pun intended). It needs to be a priority for the government, as well as for parents. Banning junk food in school canteens might look like a great move, but unless we identify exactly what constitutes 'junk' food, it isn't going to be very effective. It is also not going to help much unless there are other measures taken in parallel by parents and schools. Parents need to actively ensure that their kids eat the right kind of food, and that their kids are active. Schools also need to ensure that kids get enough physical activity. One or two hours a week, the norm when I was in school, simply won't cut it anymore. Schools must teach kids about nutrition and food safety. Unless these steps are taken together, many more kids are going to spend their school years obese, like I did. And many won't be fortunate enough to lose all that weight later in life.

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