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Study links student obesity to distance from fast food

Low-cost, high-cal eateries near schools increase the odds, researchers say.

March 23, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

Barely 300 feet separate Fullerton Union High School from a McDonald's restaurant on Chapman Avenue. Researchers say that's boosting the odds that its students will be super-sized.

Teens who attend classes within one-tenth of a mile of a fast-food outlet are more likely to be obese than peers whose campuses are located farther from the lure of quarter-pound burgers, fries and shakes.

Those are the findings of a recent study by researchers from UC Berkeley and Columbia University seeking a link between obesity and the easy availability of fast food. The academics studied body-fat data from more than 1 million California ninth-graders over an eight-year period, focusing on the proximity of the school to well-known chains including McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

Their conclusion: Fast food and young waistlines make lousy neighbors.

The presence of an outlet within easy walking distance of a high school -- about 530 feet or less -- resulted in a 5.2% increase in the incidence of student obesity compared with the average for California youths, a correlation deemed "sizable" according to the findings.

The link vanished when these fast-food joints were located farther from campus, presumably because students couldn't easily reach them. Nor was it present in schools located near full-service eateries, whose prices and service times don't typically match student budgets, tastes or schedules.

"Fast food offers the most calories per price compared to other restaurants, and that's combined with a high temptation factor for students," said Stefano DellaVigna, a UC Berkeley economist and one of the paper's authors.

The researchers said cities concerned about battling teen obesity should consider banning fast-food restaurants near schools.

At Fullerton Union, one-third of the ninth-graders examined over the eight-year study period were obese. That compares with a 27% rate at La Habra High School over the same period. Located just six miles from Fullerton Union, La Habra High has similar demographics, but its neighboring fast-food eateries are situated farther from the entrance to its campus.

Fullerton Union ninth-grader Anyea Wilson said she's consumed more McDonald's fare than ever before since starting at the school last year.

"I get ice cream, French fries, double cheeseburgers, all that stuff," the student said. "I know it's not very good for you, but I eat it because that is the closest place to school."

Sophomore Daniel Bannes is partial to cheeseburgers, fries and what he and his friends call the Hulk, a large drink containing a sugary mix of orange Hi-C and blue Powerade.

Daniel said he had stopped ordering Big Macs because he was worried about the calories; a single sandwich packs 540 of them. Still, he likes having McDonald's so close.

"We all hang there after school and kick it," Daniel said.

The findings are likely to fuel the debate over what's driving America's obesity epidemic.

Concerned about growing rates of diabetes and heart disease -- particularly among young people -- state and local governments nationwide are taking aim at fatty, high-calorie foods.

California has been one of the most aggressive. Students can no longer purchase soda or junk food in Golden State schools. Some districts won't allow bake sales. California has banned artery-clogging trans fats, and Los Angeles has a one-year moratorium on new fast-food outlets in a 32-square-mile area of South L.A.

More than a dozen states and numerous cities are pondering legislation patterned after a new California law forcing chain restaurants to list calorie counts on their menus.

But blaming restaurants for the nation's weight problem strikes many as misguided. Obesity can be a product of a variety of factors, experts say, including genetics, lack of exercise and household nutrition. Courts have struck down patrons' attempts to sue restaurant chains for making them fat.

Not every group living or working in areas where fast food is plentiful experiences a higher incidence of obesity. The report's authors studied weight data for pregnant women, another group for which statistics are easily available. They found a much smaller correlation between the expectant mothers' weight gain and their proximity to the same type of burger, chicken and pizza restaurants.

The high schoolers studied appeared more susceptible to the temptations of fast food.

"School kids are a captive audience. They can't go very far from school during lunch, but adults can get in their car and have more choices," said Janet Currie of Columbia University, a co-author.

Researchers examined body-fat data taken from the mandatory fitness tests administered to all ninth-graders enrolled in California's public schools. Schools use a variety of methods, including skin-fold calipers. Using that device, a measure of more than 32% body fat for ninth-grade girls and more than 25% for boys is considered obese. The average is 25% for girls and 15% for boys, according to state guidelines.

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