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EDITORIAL: Inching ahead is progress

Out of sight, out of mind – sometimes simple philosophy works wonders.

But there might be more than that going on in the success found in schools that have banned junk food.

Survey data shows measured improvement in health among students attending schools where sales of junk food were banned for at least a year. It shows a pattern of weight loss, perhaps small, but certainly a step in the right direction, particularly when obesity has become such a concern among our population – beginning in childhood years.

Philip Leonard, a health economist at the University of New Brunswick, used data from the annual Canadian Community Health Survey, and looked at the Body Mass Index of 153,000 Canadians, aged 12 to 25, during an eight-year period. That segment of the population included 22,000 youths attending schools with junk food bans.

Leonard’s research showed, according to an article by The Canadian Press, that on average each year a student exposed to the ban had a 0.05 decline in Body Mass Index. Extend that over a five-year period, and those students were about two pounds lighter than those who didn’t face the ban.

A couple of pounds lighter – that might not sound hugely insignificant, but compared to the opposite, it’s certainly the desired effect.

These were programs initiated in schools amidst some controversy. Some argued it would have little effect, since kids might get sugary snacks from nearby stores, and there would of course be no control over what they ate outside of school. Others simply objected to the idea of any social structure exerting influence over people’s personal choices.

The debate mirrors one that surrounds sales in general of foods short on nutrition but packed with sugars, salt and such ingredients as trans-fats. Some health proponents urge governments to apply an added tax on such non-foods. But opponents see it as little more than a penalty on consumers that would be especially hard on lower-income folks.

New Brunswick was the first province to impose a junk food ban in schools, back in 2005. It was followed by Prince Edward Island the following year, Nova Scotia and Quebec in 2007, British Columbia in 2008 and Ontario in 2011.

This is a huge issue, considering close to a third of Canadian children are classified as overweight or obese.

Obviously, plenty of other factors are at play, one of the biggest being the lack of physical activity among youth compared to generations ago.

But it’s worth giving full consideration to any program that yields progress in reversing a trend toward obesity.

Bans in themselves might seem punitive, but they would serve us better when accompanied by education. Children of any age are bright enough to follow the message here, to understand what foods are more nutritious than others, which should be limited. When it comes to encouraging better habits and setting examples, starting young has its advantages.

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