Cutting School Snacks Could Curb Childhood Obesity

Former President Clinton and the American Heart Association have reached a deal with some major food companies to set guidelines for the levels of fat, sugar, sodium and calories that can be included in snack foods sold in school vending machines.

Will this plan have any effect on the obesity epidemic?

The ABC News Medical Unit has asked health professionals to respond. Here is a selection of the responses, some supportive and others critical of the plan.

Dr. George L. Blackburn, Associate Director of Nutrition, Division of Nutrition, Harvard Medical School, suggests additional ways schools can target obesity:

Team up with companies that are interested in creating "healthy" vending machine programs (example: Stoneyfield Farms has a program that is in the works in some New Hampshire schools).

Provide hands-on nutrition activities for children, such as school gardens, because children may respond to foods that they have had a role in growing and will be more likely to try new foods, specifically fruits/veggies if they've tended them and watched them grow.

Nutrition education for all grade levels within a school. Consider a program like Chef for a Day. Each class will have a nutrition educator come into the class and teach the children how to create a balanced meal. They then get the opportunity to design the cafeteria menu for one day. They will have to meet the guidelines of the school lunch program. The children will help serve the meal to other students.

Rewards programs: Lunch monitors will reward students who bring healthy choices to school.

Mentoring program: Older students will teach younger students about healthful nutrition.

Leslie Bonci, Director of Sports Nutrition, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

In addition to proposed snack changes, we need to get kids to balance energy intake versus expenditure. The other issue is what will be offered instead [of the restricted foods]? Is it something kids are willing to eat? A more appealing array of choices will also help kids to participate in healthy eating. So encouraging different food choices, a more positive message, as well as adding activity to the day in creative ways, may be easier to carry over to the home setting.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Bring back the "physical" in physical education. I'm not sure what happened to phys ed, but it has all but disappeared. Maybe kids have it once or twice a week, but it's necessary daily.

The U.S. dietary guidelines indicate that kids should have about 60 minutes each day. You cannot speak of child health and obesity prevention without having a physical activity component. No one who loses weight can maintain it for any length of time without regular physical activity. Our kids don't need to run marathons or pump iron, they just need to play.

Dr. Stephen Cook, Assistant Professor, Pediatrics, Golisano Children's Hospital at Strong University of Rochester Medical Center

It will hopefully help motivate parents to adopt these practices for themselves and for the whole family. It can't hurt if parents are educated and encouraged to adopt and model this behavior at home. If not, there might be potential for a push back. Mom or Grandma might think, well they can't get that snack at school, so I'll have to have more cookies or chips at home.

Elisa Zied, Registered Dietitian, spokeswoman for American Dietetic Association

Hopefully, the children won't run to their cupboard or pantry to devour their favorite food that's now banned at school. Hopefully, children will look for similar caps on any packaged snack foods when they're at a convenience store with their friends, or when choosing a snack to buy food from a vending machine outside of school.

Dr. Dean Ornish, founder and president, Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California at San Francisco

It's a great first step. It will have some impact directly and even more indirectly by raising awareness of the importance of making heathier choices. By increasing awareness, children may help to influence their parents.

Julie N. Germann, Licensed Psychologist, Clinical Director, FitMatters Weight Control Program, La Rabida Children's Hospital

Children's dietary and activity habits are highly influenced by their environment, which includes their school, home, and community. It also communicates to children that "our school cares about health and nutrition, even in our snacks." Even though children still have the option of stopping at the corner store after school to buy less healthy snacks, having healthier snacks available in the school will improve their snack-time nutrition and teach a healthier message.

Criticism of the Plan

Richard D. Feinman, Co-Editor-in-chief, Nutrition & Metabolism

This is truly shocking. Whereas lowering sugar is good, lowering fat is not because it leads to increases in starch consumption. Fat consumption has gone down during the obesity epidemic and one study after the other shows how useless low-fat prescriptions are. The American Heart Association is making the same recommendations that were so detrimental during this epidemic. On the other hand, if we do it as an experiment, and abide by the conclusions -- obesity is bound to get worse -- we will learn something.

Barry M. Popkin, Director, UNC Interdisciplinary Obesity Program, Professor of Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

These guidelines are very weak. This is a continuation of the ineffectual initial agreement made with Coke, Pepsi and Schweppes. And there is no enforcement or monitoring or evaluation arm funded for this effort.

It is sad that they can get publicity for essentially cutting a few products. Snacks represent the most energy dense portion of the diet and this does very little to improve that.