Childhood obesity: Children living close to junk food outlets more likely to be overweight, says New York University study

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Among New York City schoolchildren who live within a half-block of a fast food outlet, 20% are obese and 38% are overweight, shows analysis.

The closer a child lives to a fast-food restaurant or a corner store, the more likely the child will be obese or overweight. Just having fast-food outlets a block farther away, and potentially less convenient or accessible, can significantly lessen children’s chances of being obese or overweight, according to the analysis by researchers at New York University (NYU) School of Medicine.

As measured in city blocks, closeness to fast and convenience food sellers can impact a student’s chances of becoming obese, says the study, which concludes that for one million children attending New York City public schools, “their choice of what to eat depends on which food sources are close to where they live.”

The researchers calculated the body mass index (BMI) of 3,507,542 children, between the ages of five and 18. They were attending New York City public schools between 2009 and 2013.

Among children who lived within a half-block of (or roughly 0.025 miles from) a fast food outlet, 20% were obese, and 38% were overweight, found the research team. Similarly, children who lived within a half-block of corner stores or bodegas, 21% were obese and 40% overweight, says the analysis published in the Obesity journal.

“About 20% of New York public school kids are obese. This is a problem not just in New York City, but nationally. This (problem) is large, growing, and we do not yet have a set of sustained policy-oriented solutions to fix it. So I think understanding and looking for what is going to help turn the tide on childhood obesity, in particular, is critical and important”, says Dr. Brian Elbel, senior investigator of the study.

For every half or full block farther away from that students lived from unhealthy food sources, obesity figures dropped from between 1 percent to more than 4 percent, depending on the type of food outlet, according to the study authors.

“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”, says Dr. Elbel, who is an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine and at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

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

The findings, says the team, could support policies that limit fast food outlets and corner stores to keep them at a minimum distance away from housing complexes or neighborhoods with persistently high rates of obesity.

Childhood obesity is a major health issue in the US. The study says that according to estimates, about one in five school-age children in the US have an excess of body fat and are now obese – that is, they have a body mass index at or above the 95 percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex. This, says the team, is a tripling of rates since the 1970s.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity now affects 1 in 5 children and adolescents in the US. “Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the US, putting children and adolescents at risk for poor health. For children and adolescents aged 2-19 years, the prevalence of obesity was 18.5% and affected about 13.7 million children and adolescents. Obesity prevalence was 13.9% among 2- to 5-year-olds, 18.4% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 20.6% among 12- to 19-year-olds”, state CDC estimates.

The current study stemmed from 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.

The researchers found no increase in obesity risk based on the distance from home to grocery stores and sit-down restaurants. According to the researchers, there is not a lot of evidence that supermarkets and wait-service restaurants are going to be particularly influential on children’s health, at least for a dense, urban place like New York City.

“What the study found is that living really close to certain types of food outlets, particularly corner stores and fast food, which generally sell unhealthy food, is not good for child obesity. Living beyond this really close threshold actually does not matter. At the same time, living close to supermarkets and wait-service restaurants, often thought to be healthier foods, particularly supermarkets, does not tend to impact children’s obesity. Hence, the positive benefits one thought we might get from kids living really close to some of these healthier food stores actually do not turn out to be there,” says Dr. Elbel.