Junk Food Stores Near High Schools Does Not Affect Obesity

This study attempted to investigate whether the availability of high calorie junk food at stores near schools could lead to obesity in the school students. On surveying 11 schools in Maine, it was found that ten schools had more than one store that sold sodas and eight schools had more than one junk food store within less than a mile radius. This however did not raise the risk of obesity in the students. The authors, therefore, concluded that, “stores selling these food items (i.e. high calorie junk food) near schools have no significant affect on student obesity.”

The United States has witnessed an increase in childhood obesity. Figures reveal that the number of obese children and adolescents, aged between 12 and 19 years, has tripled in the past three decades. Obesity in children places them at the risk of other health problems like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases later in life. One of the main means of prevention of obesity is by regulating and restricting the intake of calories. It is believed that access to high calorie food and sweetened sodas and beverages is the primary cause of obesity in the youth. Sociological studies reveal that availability and accessibility of healthy and unhealthy foods govern the choice of eating in adolescents as well as adults. This study aimed to find out whether there existed any association between the number of obese children in schools and the proximity between the schools and food stores selling high calorie fast foods.

* The survey was conducted by mailing a questionnaire to the students’ homes. About 552 children from 11 different high schools in Maine completed the survey successfully.
* Information pertaining to the weight, height and consumption of high calorie foods was sought through the questionnaire. Using this data, the Body Mass Indices of the students were calculated.
* For each of the schools, the number of stores selling sweetened beverages, sodas and high calorie foods within a 1.5 mile radius of the school, was recorded. The density of such stores around the schools and its association with the rates of obesity in school children was then assessed.

Key findings
* The results revealed that 10 of the 11 schools had one or more stores that sold soda and eight schools had one or more fast food stores within a one kilometer radius around the school.
* The children were found to be buying sweetened drinks from various locations, including those within the school premises. It was seen that nearly half of the students bought at least one sweetened soda per week and nearly two thirds consumed fast food at least once a month.
* On assessing the weight of the school children, it was found that 12.7 percent students were overweight and 12.5 percent were obese. The remaining 73 percent students were found to have normal weights and 1.8 percent students were underweight.
* There was no association between the rates of obesity and the density of soda and fast food stores around the schools.

Next steps/Shortcomings
According to the authors, this study relied on self-reports of height, weight and fast food consumption by the school students. These reports may be erroneous. In addition, intake of diet soda was not considered in this study, and therefore, the risk of obesity in relation to beverages could not be accurately assessed. Most of the schools that the study involved provided free lunches to at least 30 percent students, and this could have affected the results. The authors further suggest that this study focused only on high school students, and future studies should encompass other groups as well.

This study found that there is a high occurrence of unhealthy fast food and soda stores around Maine schools, resulting in a high consumption of high calories by the school students. However, there is no link between these and the rates of obesity among school children. The risk of obesity is largely based on the child’s habits rather than on the ease of availability of junk food. The authors therefore suggest that anti-obesity programs should focus on educating children on the risks of consuming unhealthy food, and try to induce behavioral changes in them, instead of focusing on the environment around the school. Such programs will prove to be more effective, especially in non-urban localities.

For More Information:
Location of Food Stores near Schools Does Not Predict the Weight Status of Maine High School Students
Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2011
By David E. Harris, PhD; Janet Whatley Blum; College of Nursing and Health Professions, University of Southern Maine, Portland, Maine

FYI Living Lab Reports are a summary of the original report.

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