Kids who live near junk food outlets more likely to be obese

By June Shannon Policy News   |   5th Nov 2019

A new US study has found that proximity to junk food outlets is linked to childhood obesity, with kids who live near these shops more likely to be overweight or obese

A new study by researchers at the NYU School of Medicine in New York in the US, has found that children who live close to junk food outlets were more likely to be obese or overweight compared to children who lived further away.

According to the study, which was published recently online in the journal Obesity, among children between the ages of 5 and 18 living within a half-block of (or roughly 0.025 miles from) a fast-food outlet, 20 per cent were obese and 38 per cent were overweight. Similarly, among children who lived the same distance from corner shops or convenience stores, 21 per cent were obese and 40 per cent overweight.

The research also found that for every half or full block farther away that students lived from unhealthy food sources, obesity figures dropped from between 1 per cent to more than 4 per cent, depending on the type of food outlet.

The team’s findings were based on an analysis of public-school records from kindergarten through high school, which included periodic measurements of children’s height and weight. Researchers used mapping software to compare that information with how far every child lived from sellers of both junk and healthy foods at fast food outlets, corner stores, sit-down restaurants and grocery stores.

According to the researchers, the study comparisons made were “highly neighbourhood specific.” For example, kids in a small section of Harlem were compared only to other kids in the same part of Harlem.

Currently, 75 per cent of Irish schools have at least one and almost 30 per cent have at least five fast food outlets within 1km.

" Just having food outlets, a block farther away -- and potentially less convenient or accessible -- can significantly lessen children's chances of being obese or overweight,"

Dr Brian Elbel, Associate professor , Department of Population Health, NYU School of Medicine

Commenting on the research senior investigator Dr Brian Elbel, Associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine and at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service said, “Our study indicates that living very close to food outlets with a lot of unhealthy, junk food choices is likely not good for reducing the risk of children being overweight and/or obese.”

“Just having food outlets, a block farther away — and potentially less convenient or accessible — can significantly lessen children’s chances of being obese or overweight,” added Dr Elbel.

Even a drop in obesity rates of just a few percentage points, he said, translates into potentially saving thousands of children from obesity and its associated health problems, including increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, and early death.

Dr Elbel added that the findings could support policies that limit fast food outlets and corner shops to keep them at a minimum distance away from housing complexes or neighbourhoods with persistently high rates of obesity.

Surprisingly, Dr Elbel noted, that the study found no increase in obesity risk based on the distance from home to grocery stores and sit-down restaurants. He said this finding suggests that neighbourhood “food deserts,” where fresh produce is in short supply, plays a small role one way or another in childhood obesity rates in urban areas.

In essence, he said, what appears to put kids at risk is how easily and quickly they can access junk food.

“ The Irish Heart Foundation is increasingly concerned about the ongoing danger to the wellbeing of children posed by the increasing number of fast food restaurants located in close proximity to schools in Ireland,"

Helena O Donnell, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer, Irish Heart Foundation

Commenting Helena O Donnell, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer said that reducing childhood obesity was a priority for Irish Heart Foundation and the charity has actively opposed plans for new fast food businesses near schools.

According to Ms O Donnell, “The obesogenic environment in which we live where overconsumption of energy dense foods is easy, available, affordable and accessible is a fundamental driver of the obesity crisis and makes it hard for people to attain and remain a health weight,”

“The Irish Heart Foundation is increasingly concerned about the ongoing danger to the wellbeing of children posed by the increasing number of fast food restaurants located in close proximity to schools in Ireland. The school environment is vital to the development of healthy children and young people. Currently, 75 per cent of Irish schools have at least one and almost 30 per cent have at least five fast food outlets within 1km. In the absence of proper regulation this situation can only deteriorate further given the business value to fast food outlets of being sited near schools,” she added.

The Irish Heart Foundation has led the fight against the marketing of junk food to children in Ireland. In 2016 it launched the ground-breaking research ‘Who’s Feeding the Kids Online’ highlighting the extent to which junk brands target children through digital media.

For more information on our campaigns please see here

(Elbel, B. , Tamura, K. , McDermott, Z. T., Wu, E. and Schwartz, A. E. (2019), Childhood Obesity and the Food Environment: A Population‐Based Sample of Public School Children in New York City. Obesity. doi:10.1002/oby.22663)

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child health childhood obesity fast food food poverty inequity junk food junk food marketing kids overweight stop targeting kids

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