Researchers say findings raise important questions about local food environment’s influence on the diet of young children.
Children who live near fast food outlets are more likely to gain weight compared with those living farther away, new research suggests.
Researchers from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) tracked the weight of more than 1,500 state primary school pupils aged four to 11.
The study found children living closer to fast food outlets were more likely to gain a significant amount of weight between the first and last year of primary school.
The study, which will be published in the Journal of Public Health, claims it is the first to show a link between accessibility to fast food outlets and weight gain over time.
The study’s lead researcher, Matthew Pearce, said the findings raise important questions about the role of the local food environment and its influence on the diet of young children.
Pearce, a former UWE Bristol public health student now working for the NHS, said: “We know from national data that the number of children classified as obese doubles between the first and last year of primary school. Understanding the reasons for this is important to protect the future health of children.
“Obesity is driven by many complex factors. Our study adds to existing evidence that the neighbourhood environment plays an important role in the development of obesity.”
Researchers calculated a “fast food accessibility score” for each child in the study by looking at how many fast food outlets were within about half a mile of their home.
The study also found a higher density of fast food outlets within poorer neighbourhoods.
This echoes data recently released by Cambridge University’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research, which found that there are now 56,638 takeaways in England – more than a quarter of all the country’s food outlets – with some of the heaviest concentrations of fast food found in England’s poorest and most deprived neighbourhoods.
Caroline Cerny, of the Obesity Health Alliance, told that the environment can affect levels of obesity. She said: “Despite the health impact of the obesity epidemic being well known, it is shocking that the number of fast food takeaways is increasing.
“Whether it’s the marketing of junk food on billboards and TV, or the proximity of junk food outlets to schools, we know our environment has a huge impact on levels of overweightness and obesity.”
Pearce agrees and is calling for more to be done to help people lead healthier lives.
He said: “While ultimately it is down to individuals on how they choose to live, it is widely accepted that we live in environments that make managing our weight increasingly difficult.
“We therefore need national and local policymakers to take decisions that support more favourable conditions that enable people to eat healthier and become more physically active.”
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