Juice, chocolate milk ban will improve student well-being, UNB health economist says

Juice, chocolate milk ban will improve student well-being, UNB health economist says

Students in schools that stopped sales of junk food five years ago weigh, on average, two pounds less than students in schools that still allow it.

That's what health economist Philip Leonard discovered in his recent study of young people's weight, which compared  provinces that don't allow junk food to be sold in schools with those that do. 

Leonard said the bans against junk food are paying off, and broader bans — against flavoured milk and juices — are likely to help as well.

"If the school day is seven hours, that's still seven hours of the day you didn't eat as much junk food," said Leonard, a research associate at the New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data and Training at the University of New Brunswick. 

His work focuses on whether a policy or program can affect health.

- New Brunswick bans chocolate milk, juice sales in schools 

- Conquering childhood obesity will take legislative action, conference told 

New Brunswick banned sales of junk food in school five years ago, but this week, Education Minister Brian Kenny announced sales of chocolate milk and juices will be banned too, starting in September.

The minister said the reforms to Policy 711, also known as the "healthier school food environment" policy, will give students access to healthier foods.

Over the last 12 years, at least six provinces have banned junk food from schools.

Leonard's report on junk food, which was released last year, said the ban has had a positive impact on students' well-being.

"It's reasonable to think that a slightly stricter policy will have slightly better results," he said Thursday.

For his study, Leonard examined the body mass index of 153,000 young Canadians over about eight years from information in the Canadian Community Health Survey. The BMI is calculated using weight and height.

The group that was surveyed included 22,000 young people who had not been allowed to buy junk food for at least a year at school. They weighed less than those who could buy junk food. 

The results, Leonard said, show it's reasonable for the government not to allow school sales of junk food or sugary, less nutritious drinks such as chocolate milk and juice.

"Obviously, milk has some nutrients in it which are good, and so do juices," he said. "But at the same time, they've got a fair bit of sugars and [are] high in calories," he said.

"That's why previously they were not banned and now they are."  

Under Policy 711, the Department of Education got rid of foods that fell under a "minimum nutrition" list, the first province to do so.

MD backs healthier options

Anthony Knight, CEO of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said almost a third of New Brunswick youth are obese, and New Brunswick doctors have been calling for healthier foods in public schools for years. 

"These types of initiatives de-socialize sugar-sweetened beverages," he said. "And making healthy foods more available is critical to the overall health of young people."

He said a 250-millilitre serving of chocolate milk contains 3.5 teaspoons of sugar, a bottle of juice has about six teaspoons of sugar, and soft drinks have about six teaspoons of sugar per can.

"That is a great deal of sugar to be consumed in one beverage," Knight said. 

Children should rely on water and white milk as healthy alternatives.

"We've seen a number of unhealthy foods made available to children and youth for years," he said. 

A lack of physical education

But Peter Corby, a retired physical education teacher, said chocolate milk and juice aren't the problem.

"I don't think anyone's going to die and become obese drinking chocolate milk," he said.

"There's been research showing that chocolate milk does restore the body after a physical workout."  

He said the bigger issue is the lack of physical education in the public school system.

"Once you brainwash the kids at a young age … part of your lifestyle has to be fitness, whether it's walking, jogging each day or playing and getting away from your computer or iPhone," said Corby, who was the athletic director at Kennebecasis Valley High School in Rothesay for 22 years.

"You've got to let them know how important physical fitness is … there's an activity for everybody."

The Fredericton resident said physical education should be compulsory throughout the school system. New Brunswick doesn't require students to take gym class in high school.

A spokesperson for the Education Department said students in kindergarten to Grade 8 get a minimum of two hours of physical education a week.

Students in Grades 9 and 10 can choose to take a 45-minute physical education class each week, said Geneviève Mallet-Chiasson. In Grades 11 and 12, students who chose physical education to fulfil the "life role" requirement, get 60 minutes of it a day, she said. 

Corby said there aren't enough physical education specialists in the school system who can teach students. They've been replaced by homeroom teachers.

"Right now we don't have a priority of increasing physical activity," he said.