If lots of fast food restaurants and other outlets that sell junk food are located in your neighborhood, then your teen is more likely to regularly chomp on burgers and fries and wash them down with a soda. That is the unpalatable finding of a new study, released on July 27, from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research that examined the effect of higher concentrations of less healthy food outlets on adolescent junk food consumption. As a result, nearly three-quarters of California teenagers live or go to school in neighborhoods that are crowded with fast food restaurants and other outlets that sell unhealthy food (convenience stores, liquor stores, dollar stores and pharmacies) relative to the number of healthier food outlets, such as grocery stores, produce vendors and farmers markets. And unsurprisingly, teens who live or go to school in such neighborhoods are more likely to drink soda and eat fast food.
Research has shown that the consumption of fast food and soda has been linked to taking in excess calories and can contribute to diabetes and obesity. Using both the 2007 California Health Interview Survey and InfoUSA, a 2007 database of U.S. businesses, the researchers calculated a Home and School Retail Food Environment Index, which measured the number of less healthy food outlets relative to the number of healthier outlets surrounding the homes and schools of California teens, and compared that measurement to teen junk food consumption. They found that the average California teen has more than seven times as many junk food outlets near home and school as healthier food outlets. Furthermore, teens in more unhealthy neighborhoods were 17% more likely to drink soda every day and 18% more likely to eat fast food at least twice a week than their peers in healthier neighborhoods.
The research showed that few counties, whether rural or urban, were immune from the unhealthy effects of junk food outlet density. In total, 13 counties across California had Home and School Retail Food Environment Index scores of more than 8 points: an indication of a relatively unhealthy food environment. The authors recommended a number of policy options to improve the food environments where teens live and go to school, including better zoning, especially around schools, and farm-to-school programs that bring fresh produce into school cafeterias. They also noted that better incentives were needed to bring healthy food outlets, such as farmers markets and grocery stores, into underserved neighborhoods.
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