Does Banning Snacks in Schools Prevent Obesity?

girls eating school lunchIn this article, pediatrician and childhood feeding expert Dr. Katja Rowell protests a decision by the St. Paul’s city schools, explaining that banning candy and high-fat foods won’t prevent obesity. She argues that labeling foods as unhealthy can backfire, leading to inappropriate dieting and eating disorders.

Rowells writes:

First, the banning of “treat” foods and labeling them as “bad” or “unhealthy” is likely to have predictable if unintended consequences. When foods are overly controlled and restricted, the result is keen interest, desire and sneaking. Children then tend to overeat and binge when given the chance. Sadly, girls as young as 4 report feeling guilt and shame when eating forbidden foods — if the foods are “bad,” and they are eating them, then they must be bad.


Second, with no option for second helpings, schools undermine eating based on internal cues of hunger and fullness, and fail those for whom school is where they are fed most reliably. The policy also points to a fundamental misunderstanding of how children (especially young ones) eat — lots some days, little others. Children are born with the ability to self-regulate intake, meaning they know how much to eat so their bodies can grow in a healthy way.

Then Rowells introduced the term competent eating, which was new to me:

Competent eaters have stable and lower BMI, better blood sugar and cholesterol levels and better nutrition, according to author, nutrition and childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter and supporting research.

Competent eaters feel good about eating and enjoy a variety of foods from all the food groups in satisfying amounts. They are more capable with cooking and use of nutrition labels, and provide themselves with regular meals and snacks. They are less likely to engage in disordered eating including dieting and bingeing. Importantly, competent eaters decide how much to eat based on internal cues of hunger and fullness.

Rowell’s suggestions on how schools can promote competent eating included ways of making sure that kids get as much as they need while still eating a reasonably healthy diet.

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Photo credit: WellspringCS

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