Fast food near schools means fatter kids

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Adolescents who go to school within a half-mile of a fast-food restaurant are more likely to be overweight or obese than kids whose schools are further away, new research suggests.

A woman poses with a Wendy's hamburger in Miami, Florida July 28, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The young people in the study also ate fewer servings of fruits and vegetables and drank more soda if there was at least one fast food restaurant within a half-mile radius of their school, Drs. Brennan Davis of Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California and Christopher Carpenter of the University of California at Irvine found.

“Overall, our patterns are consistent with the idea that fast food near schools affects students’ eating habits, overweight, and obesity,” they conclude in a report in the American Journal of Public Health.

Several studies have demonstrated that fast food restaurants are often clustered within walking distance of schools, but studies looking at whether this affects students’ weight or eating habits have not found a link.

In their study, Davis and Carpenter used detailed 2002-2005 data on more than 500,000 middle- and high-school students from the California Healthy Kids Survey to examine whether proximity to fast food restaurants was related to eating habits or body weight.

Roughly 28 percent of the study participants were overweight and 12 percent were obese. Over half (55 percent) attended schools within a half mile of a fast-food restaurant.

According to the researchers, students who attended schools located near a fast-food establishment were heavier than were other students of similar age, ethnicity and activity level. The effect was the same whether there was one or more fast food restaurants close by.

Kids going to school near fast food restaurants also were less likely to report eating any vegetables, any fruit, or drinking any juice the day before; they were more likely to say they drank soda on the previous day.

Policies for helping adolescents eat more healthy food could range from offering them healthier alternatives to the “more drastic” approach of restricting the number of fast food restaurants allowed within walking distance of schools, Davis and Carpenter say.

“Regardless of which option policymakers choose, the need for intervention is clear,” they assert. “The sheer magnitude of the problem of childhood obesity demands attention.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, March 2008.