Banning Junk Food Doesn’t Decrease Obesity.

The forbidden fruit syndrome: Does banning unhealthy snacks make them more desirable?

Growing up, the shelves in my family’s pantry were stocked with soda, chips and candy. Of course, there were healthy options, too – but my friends always loved coming over to indulge in the forbidden snacks that their parents didn’t buy.

Though I was overweight for a few years during my childhood, my sister was always thin. Though the unhealthy snacks were available to us, neither of us paid them much attention. Because soda, chips and sweets weren’t considered “off limits,” there was no satisfaction – as there was for my friends – in consuming them.

A new study, published by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, calls into question the effectiveness of banning unhealthy snacks – particularly, in schools. According to the data, there was no correlation – at all – between obesity and attending a school where sweets and salty snacks were available.

Researchers tracked the body mass indexes (BMI) of 19,450 students from fifth grade through eight grade. In fifth grade, some 59% of students attended schools with unhealthy snack bans. By eight grade, 86% of students were subject to bans.

Looking at the data, correlations were examined on a number of levels. Researchers even looked at differences in BMIs for students that moved into schools with bans and vice versa. But no matter how researchers sliced the data, there were virtually no differences in BMIs. In other words, the bans don’t work.

As was experienced by my friends during childhood, it may be the forbidden fruit syndrome. The action of banning something usually has the opposite effect than what is intended. Just look how American youth compare to their European counterparts when it comes to alcohol and the drinking age. Moreover, the more we concentrate on what we can’t eat, the more we want to eat it.

But if banning unhealthy foods isn’t the answer for the astronomical obesity rates in American youth, what is? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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  1. Rather than warring against obesity, maybe it’s wiser to advocate for active lifestyles and healthy diets.

  2. I think we should focus more upon granting kids options and instilling them with responsibility for making appropriate, consistent, and healthy choices. By banning good, we’re giving them an artificial reality

  3. BJ Beauchamp says:

    Well, the school lunches in and of themselves don’t really provide the best nutrition in the world. But then again, I graduated high school in ’03 so things have likely changed a wee bit. Either way, if the school curriculum were actually crafted properly, gym class, health class and lunch would all be blended together perfectly. You’d be able to educate, get kids up and moving and then properly fuel them for growth (not only physically but mentally as well). Instead, you have a lame sex-ed and nutrition gloss over (with teachers that don’t really know much anyways), a stand-in-the-corner-and-hide gym class and sodium fueled lunch period.

    However, what the research failed to show or look into (I think) is their home lifestyles as well. Just because you ban it at school doesn’t mean it is banned at home. So just by cutting them off from it for 6-7 hours a day doesn’t mean they can’t make up for it at home after school via snack or dinner.

  4. I believe the constant push from dietitians, physicians, and our u.s. Govt, that fats were bad and sugars are ok conditioned us as a country to eat the wrong foods and now it’s so much of a habit that no one can break the cycle without rigorous behavioral modification and reeducation.

  5. I think it’s a step, at least, people are thinking on strategies to tackle this issue. I think we need to advocate for public policies that intend to address this problems, such as campaings to create awareness in schools, raising taxes for saturated fat containing food, lowering the prices of fruits and vegetables and making these more accessible than a McDonald’s.

  6. Unfortunately, these bans aren’t assigned randomly so you can’t say that there isn’t a relationship. The schools with the highest BMIs are most likely to instate a ban in the first place. In addition, parents may be more likely to move an obese student to a school that bans junk food.

  7. Michael DiCato says:

    If Penn State’s data shows that there’s no correlation between a food ban and students’ BMI, then how is it that you can conclude that there’s a negative correlation (by stating that there’s the ‘opposite effect’)?

  8. We europeans often have a huge laugh when we hear the words ‘land of the freedom’. A lot is forbidden for surtain ages in the US. Like you already mentioned, alcohol and snacks, but swearing as well (we listen to the original songs in primetime without censorship.)
    Drinking in public is not even allowed for adults. 😀
    You only get te handle responsible if you are given a choice and deal with the consequenses.
    Oh, you do have the right to buy en walk around with a loaded gun. 🙁

  9. I have a mom who is a school nutritionist for a small school where more than 90% of the students (K – 8, 125 total students) are on free lunches. To say the least it is a very impoverished area. When she took over as the cook 15 years ago, breakfast was cold cereal, doughnuts, milk and a fruit cut. Lunch consisted of Pizza, fries, hamburgers, or loaded nachos. Rarely did the meals deviate from this. During this time, more than 70% of the students (K – 8) were diabetic or pre-diabetic, and more than 80% were considered over wieght. After 15 years at the school, pizza is now a once a month treat, burgers 2 times a month and Nachos are a special first day of the month treat. The students now have a daily salad bar, unlimited fruits and vegies for lunch and have completely changed their school lunch/breakfast meals.
    However…..once the students go home, dinner is usually takeout or whatever mom/dad grabs on the way home…, nachos and burgers.
    While school meals need to be a lot more nutritious, and many schools and the gov are headed in that direction, it seems that parents need some re-training to catch up with the times.

  10. Hi Davey,

    after reading your blog(s) for a couple of months in secrecy, I cannot resist to reply on this specific topic.

    From my european viewpoint, you U.S.-americans shoot too fast on the most likely source of any problem, without considering the manifold of other contributions.

    Banning unhealthy food is of course not the answer to the problem of obesity, but healthy or “organic” food is neither. As you always point out, moderation in food intake and physical activity is the key also in my opinion. I visited the U.S. two times in the last years and spent a week each in Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago. Invariably, I noticed two things in which your country differs from good(?) old germany: size in every sense and the excessive usage of cars.

    Topic size: the diameter of a dish at our universities refectory: 25cm (ca. 10inch). Average size of an individual serving of meat: 120g (4.2oz). Typical side orders are cooked potatoes, pasta or rice and some steamed vegetables. Any beverage contains 0.3litres as a maximum. A comparison of those figures to U.S. habits would be interesting. I remember insane portions of steak served in restaurants in Chicago…

    Secondly, cars: your cities are designed for motorised individual transport and virtually every adult possesses or has access to a car. This is a necessity, as the distances between your homes, place of work, recreation areas and supermarkets are comparatively large due to the organisation of the cities in districts for work, amusement, shopping and so on. Once you have a car, you will use it even for short trips. European cities like Berlin are more mixed and compressed, you can walk many distances, commute by bike or take public transport if both is not feasible. This all gives a low-intensity workout every day.

    It is a bit of everything: eating smaller portions, walking and cycling regularly, and putting way less sugar in your cereals. Those small contributions all add up to an appreciable difference. Maybe its the “american way of life” that has led to such exaggerations like driving to the gym by car, just to have a 60min workout on the treadmill.
    Simply blaming food that is considered as “unhealthy” as the source of adipositas is pointless, and banning it by any authority is ridiculous.

    Sorry for my poor english, my teacher was a brick layer in her first profession…not kidding! I do not intend to offend anyone by those thoughts. Davey, keep up your good work on convincing people of an more active lifestyle.

    with best regards from across the pond,


  11. Spent most of my adult life working at an elementary school, for those students on free or reduced lunch the meals (breakfast and lunch) they eat at school do play a significant part their overall nutrition on school days so do agree with attempts to upgrade the nutritional value of the meals served at school.

    After taking early retirement from my school job, decided to work part time, ended up with a job at a large grocery store, the junk people are allowed to buy on food stamps (now called ebt) is a shame. We tax payers foot the bill for unhealthy food which results in all kinds of obesity related illness which we the tax payers end up paying the bill. Have checked out orders consisting of soft drinks, chips, cookies, cakes over $125 and paid for with food stamps. That should not be allowed.

    Common sense is not so common theee days.

  12. • raise wages.. across the board..
    • raise the marginal tax rate to 40% for corporations and individuals making over $250,000/year..
    • lower the prices and increase the availability of healthy foods, especially in public institutions and fast food restaurants..
    • make buying and consuming healthy foods an income tax deduction..
    • encourage local farm production, crop rotation, seasonal harvests, and sustainable farming techniques..
    • include the long-term healthcare costs estimates into the prices of unhealthy school meals..
    • tax the industrial agriculture complex at the marginal tax rate for all net profits garnered from gov-subsidized meals, snacks, and beverages..
    • put p.e. and recess back in the public schools..
    • encourage (nay mandate) professional sports leagues/teams/ncaa to contribute 10% of their quarterly profits to subsidizing free/reduced price school meals.. and dont pass the cost on to the fans… suck it up mlb.. ncaa.. nba… nhl… nfl..

    ~ cheers…

    • when I was a kid we had recess 3 times a day. a half hour when we got there and before we left and an hour after lunch. My nephew is going to school now and they get like ONE 20 min recess. Plus my mom was a stay at home mom and she hardly ever just bought food for us though there is 9 of us lol and we lived on a farm. She use to make us go outside and get some fresh air and we would play outside for ever and sometimes she would have to come get us before it got too dark.

      I guess what I’m saying is so much has changed, most mothers work out as well as their husbands and the kids are in day care and the schools want the kids to be in class more learning rather than worrying about the kids playing and having fun. And why the heck are kids getting out at 230 anyways? I always got out at 330 and was home by 430.

      The real truth of it all is there are a lot of selfish turds in this world now and they are ruining the world now.