Five years ago the state of California mandated stronger nutrition standards for its schools by limiting the calorie, fat, saturated-fat and sugar content of snacks sold on campuses. In July 2009, the state banned the sale of soda and other sweetened beverages in high schools. As with most investments, the dividends took some time to accrue, but today they seem meaningful.

A study published in the May 12 issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine (166 [5], 452–58) showed that California high-school students consumed fewer calories, less sugar and less fat at school than students in states that allowed schools to sell unhealthy snacks and drinks outside of meals. In fact, the final analysis of dietary intake—both in and out of school—showed California students consumed an average of 158 fewer calories daily. The difference was attributed to fewer calories being consumed while at school. Knowing that it takes a deficit of 3,500 kilocalories to lose 1 pound, the 158 kcal deficit per school day has California students on track to shed a pound every 4.43 school weeks—a step in the right direction for child and teen obesity challenges.

In addition, there was no evidence that California students consumed more calories outside of school to compensate for consuming fewer calories at school. The study authors repeated the analysis with only Hispanic students, a population with particularly high rates of obesity, and found similar results.

“Our findings suggest that strong nutrition standards for snacks and drinks may be an effective strategy for reducing weight gain among teens,” said lead author Daniel Taber, PhD, MPH, a researcher for the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “It’s especially encouraging to see reduced consumption of calories, sugar and fat among Hispanic students, given the disparities in obesity rates within that population.”