School junk food bans have positive impact on weight: New Brunswick health economist

University of New Brunswick health economist Philip Leonard says his research shows a link between school junk food bans and student weight.
University of New Brunswick health economist Philip Leonard says his research shows a link between school junk food bans and student weight. Adrienne South/Global News

A study conducted by a researcher at the University of New Brunswick indicates there is a link between school junk food bans and student weight.

UNB health economist Philip Leonard said he wanted to examine whether or not junk food bans lead to improved health and healthier weights in students attending schools with bans.

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Leonard, who works in the department of economics at UNB and is a health economist at the university’s New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data and Training, said New Brunswick led the way in banning all food from the minimum nutrition list when it banned junk food in schools in 2005 with policy 711.

Leonard said he was looking at students’ weight and if there was a difference in their body mass index (BMI) after they’d been banned from junk food for a number of years in schools, compared to students who didn’t experience a ban.

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“You might say it’s a small effect, [but] the average kids who spent five or more years being banned [from junk food] weighed about two pounds less than the average [student] who had not been banned from junk food,” Leonard said.

He said each year there was a ban, he saw a 0.05 BMI reduction in students.

Leonard said there was a greater impact on BMI and weight reduction for females and said the bans had a more profound impact on younger students in the sample. Leonard said his work adds to a growing body of research that suggests changing school food environments can have significant effects on student weight.  He said while it’s a “step in the right direction,” other policies are required to continue to decrease rates of obesity.

Diabetes Canada manager of community health promotion in Fredericton, Tara Werner, told Global News the results are positive and show “the potential the school system has to learn about the healthy behaviours and to sustain and lower BMI.”

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Werner said New Brunswick has some of the highest rates of obesity, which can lead to higher rates of Type 2 Diabetes.

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“I think there’s a lot of potential, not just in the BMI,” Werner said.   “I think that’s great that we’re seeing results and that’s being lowered, but there’s also potential for other healthy behaviours to come from that. So, it’s sort of like a domino effect with the knowledge and awareness being built.”

She said the sooner children are exposed to healthy eating and the knowledge of making healthy choices, the more likely they are to lead more physically active lives, which, she said, leads to long-term sustainability and health.

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“We know in New Brunswick we have a really decent school nutrition policy that’s in place right now. There was a recent audit in how the schools are doing in implementing that, and we’ve been told by the province that they’re going to be revising that. So, we’re really looking forward to that and the potential in that and think of what schools could actually do if everybody was following that policy,” Werner said. “So I think there’s a lot of potential in that and the school system has the potential to make the healthy choice the easy choice for our students.”

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New Brunswick Health Council and government reaction

In response to Leonard’s research, New Brunswick acting chief medical officer of health, Dr. Jennifer Russell, said it’s “encouraging to see the positive effects that policy 711, issued by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, is having on youth.”

Dr. Russell said that there are “many factors” that influence obesity, aside from unhealthy food choices.  She said personal choice and behaviour only accounts for 40 per cent of health outcomes.

“At least 50 per cent of the factors affecting population health are made up of the physical, social and economic conditions that New Brunswickers encounter on a daily basis, particularly where they live, work and raise families,” said Russell.

She said the factors, also known as “Determinants of Health,” include income and social status, social support networks, social environments, education and literacy, employment and working conditions, healthy child development, culture, personal health practices and coping skills, physical environments, health services, gender, and biology and genetic endowment.

New Brunswick Health Council CEO Stéphane Robichaud told Global News there is a higher rate of students in kindergarten to grade 5 who are overweight, totalling 36 per cent, compared to 28 per cent of students in grades 6 to 12.

“What this suggests is we have this younger, younger generation that appears to be developing more of an overweight challenge,” Robichaud said. “And we also know that with the issue of overweight, that if we’re not successful at dealing with this at youth and at adolescent age it gets harder with adults.”

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He said measures such as looking at the quality of foods in schools has been a big focus for a number of years and said it’s very positive.

Robichaud said research like Leonard’s adds to that perspective.

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