Obesity higher for kids whose schools are near fast food chains

By Michael Harper

Obesity is an epidemic that affects millions around the world. What’s worse, children are often particularly vulnerable to the dangers that come with being significantly overweight. In the United States, studies show that race and socioeconomic status is a major factor in childhood obesity, with African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native-Americans being the most likely to be obese.

A new study from Baylor University has found that these groups are especially at risk when fast food restaurants are located near their schools. Minority students were also found to be less active than students who attended a school without fast food options so readily available.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

“Our study demonstrates that fast food near schools is an environmental influence that has magnified effects on some minority children at lower-income urban schools,” explains Brennan Davis, assistant professor of marketing at Baylor who co-authored the paper with Sonya Grier, associate professor of marketing at American University.

Children in low income and urban schools have been found to have [a] higher body mass index (BMI) than those students who attend schools in a more affluent area. Unhealthy food choices, such as fatty burgers and sugar-rich sodas, contribute to a high BMI. To make matters worse, an unpublished study has also found that students who are more likely to engage socially are more likely to visit these nearby restaurants to meet their friends.

Davis and Grier’s study found that having a fast food chain so close to school can cancel out the benefits of one day’s worth of exercise for any student, regardless of their socioeconomic status. However, this factor is much more prevalent for students who attend schools in lower income areas. For these students, the easy accessibility of a burger and soda so near school may cancel out the healthy benefits of three days’ worth of exercise.

Grier says this study is important because these lower-income students are the fastest growing demographic in the country in addition to being the most likely to be obese.

“As mobile geodemographic location targeting increases, fast food promotions will likely target those adolescents nearest to fast food outlets and who are at greatest risk for obesity. Voluntary industry actions, or policies that support healthier food near schools, can contribute to healthier school food environments,” said Davis in a statement.

An earlier study by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that, when left to their own devices, students are more likely to skip over any of the “healthy” alternatives offered by these restaurants, even if they’re dining at a health-conscious establishment. The UCLA researchers asked 97 teenagers to dine at either Subway or McDonalds after school and keep their receipts. The researchers then recorded what the students ate and the total calorie intake of their meals. Those students who ate at Subway only ended up eating 83 calories less than those who ate at McDonalds, and both groups ate more calories than the 850 calories that the Institute of Medicine suggests should be contained in a school lunch.

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