Fast Food’s Lurking Presence
Carpenter and Davis used specific 2002-05 data from the California Healthy Kids Survey of more than 500,000 students from middle and high schools to examine if school proximity to fast food restaurants had any link to students’ eating habits or body weight.
The study found that students who attended schools within a half-mile of a fast food restaurant were more likely to be overweight or obese than adolescents whose schools were farther away.
According to the study, just over 28 percent of the participants were overweight, while 12 percent were obese. About 55 percent of the participants were enrolled in schools that were within a half-mile of a fast-food restaurant. According to Carpenter’s and Davis’ findings, students who attended schools closer to a fast food chain were heavier in weight than their peers of the same age, ethnicity and even activity level. The results did not seem to be any different whether there were one or more fast food chains nearby the school.
The researchers also found that kids going to such schools were also less likely to report eating any vegetables, fruit or drinking any juice the day before they were surveyed; on the contrary, they were more likely to admit to drinking soda on the previous day.
“Students exposed to nearby fast food around their schools consume fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, consume more servings of soda and are more likely to be overweight,” Davis said. “The result is unique to fast food (as compared to nearby motels) and is not observed for other risky outcomes (such as smoking). The exposure to poor-quality food environments has important effects on youth eating patterns and tendencies towards becoming overweight.”
Davis expressed his belief that direct intervention might have a significant impact.
“Policy interventions limiting geographic proximity of fast food around schools could have an important role in reducing youth obesity,” Davis said.
Carpenter and Davis offer several remedies in their study for dealing with the unsettling prevalence of young obesity. Their strategies for helping overweight adolescents eat healthier food range from offering healthier alternatives to the “more drastic” measure of restricting the number of fast food restaurants allowed within walking distance of schools. Such a tactic would take much more work, however, though the results would be more definite.
“This is one factor that may contribute to the ‘obesity crisis’ in America,” Davis said. “Of course, there are many more [factors].”
Several other studies have posed that a lot of fast food restaurants are often clustered within walking distance of schools, such as the University Town Center across the street from UCI’s campus, but studies looking at whether this affects students’ weight or eating habits have not found a link.
Davis claimed that he has investigated why this trend between obesity and fast food chains proximity exists.
“There are numerous possibilities,” Davis said. “The first is that it is simply a convenient option. The second is that … when events are close, we process them differently. We think about them more concretely and may have less self-control; as a result … Third, fast food may act as a place for pro-social activity. Students may choose to go to fast food because it hosts social gathering.”
Fast food sales in the U.S. have increased more than tenfold over the last 30 years, from $16.1 billion in 1975 to a projected $172.5 billion in 2006, Davis explained.
Davis also noted the dangers and diversity of fast food.
“It may be easier to consume unhealthy food when in a social setting,” Davis said. “Be aware of this and of healthier menu items at a fast food restaurant.”