Fast Food Restaurants Near Schools Don't Raise Obesity Risk

Unhealthy Foods So Accessible That Distance From Schools Makes Little Difference

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 15, 2011 -- A child's risk for becoming overweight or obese does not seem to increase when fast food establishments and stores are located near school grounds, a new study finds.

"Unhealthful food choices are ubiquitous and consequently stores selling these food items near schools have no significant effect on student obesity," researchers led by David E. Harris, PhD, of the University of Southern Maine in Portland say in the July/August 2011 Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Researchers compared the weight and height of 552 students from 11 high schools in Maine to the proximity of food stores to their schools. They computed the driving distance to all food stores within 1.24 miles of the schools or to the closest store. Ten schools had one or more stores that sold soda, and eight schools had one or more fast food restaurant less than a mile from their grounds, the study showed.

Students gave self-reports of their height and weight. A quarter of the students were overweight or obese, 73% were normal weight, and just under 2% were underweight.

Half of all the students drank soda at least once a week, and more than 10% drank soda daily, the study showed. There were similar patterns seen for sports drinks. Nearly two-thirds had eaten at a burger-and-fries restaurant in the past month, and more than half had visited a pizza parlor.

The most popular places students got soda were convenience stores (51%), home (43%), fast food restaurants (41%), and grocery stores (37.5%). Students reported getting sports drinks from convenience stores (45%), school vending machines (41%), home (29%), and grocery stores (26%).

As Maine Goes?

The proximity to fast food establishments did not increase risk for obesity among these students, but other studies in different populations have shown such a correlation. The reason for the discrepancy between studies may be related to the fact that Maine is largely made up of suburban or rural communities. There may be a greater concentration of fast food restaurants closer to schools in urban environments.

This study "provides more evidence that higher calorie/higher fat and added-sugar food choices remain a part of teens' eating patterns and [that] accessibility is not an issue for teens, so whether a quick-serve restaurant is close to schools or not doesn't automatically change their behavior pattern," says Connie Diekman, RD, the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St Louis.

"Changing the eating behaviors of teens requires more than simply controlling what is sold," she says via email. "Teens are able to make choices and they need education and motivation to limit their intake of calorie-dense foods."

Nutrition Education Begins at Home

Laura Jeffers, RD, of the Digestive Disease Institute of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, agrees.

Nutrition education starts at home and follows children through school, she says.

"A lot of the things that they are consuming, such as burgers and fries, doesn't happen right after school anyway, and can be on the weekend," she says. "Kids can get healthy or unhealthy food everywhere.

"The parents have to be on board too because the majority of what kids eat is at home," she says.


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SOURCES: Harris, D. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2011; vol 43: pp 274-278.Laura Jeffers, RD, Digestive Disease Institute, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio.Connie Diekman, RD, director, university nutrition, Washington University, St Louis. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.