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New Evidence for Fast Food and Obesity April 1, 2009

Posted by Katelyn Mack in Neighborhoods, Nutrition.
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There is new evidence that going to school close to fast food chains increases adolescents’ risk of obesity. A National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper published in February and recently reported on by the New York Times provides strong evidence that living close to (for pregnant women) or going to school near (for high-school students) a fast food outlet is associated with increased rates of obesity, after accounting for income, education, and race.

By comparing students in the same grade in years before and after the fast food outlet opened, there is a strong case for the temporal ordering and even causal effect of fast food chains on adolescent obesity.

Most articles written about obesity and overweight focus on individual-level risk factors, specifically diet and physical activity. I do not deny that those modifiable risk factors are important, but they simply do not paint the whole picture of the myriad social forces that affect overweight and obesity. Indeed, they likely cause those unhealthy diets and physical inactivity in the first place. Furthermore, better understanding the social factors can provide great opportunities for population-based interventions.

I was most excited to see that the New York Times article considered public policy interventions that could result from these findings. Namely,

zoning laws that prohibit fast-food restaurants near schools

according to Kelly Brownell (cited in the NYTimes article).

While this by no means settles the controversy of the contribution of fast food chains in the development and continuation of the obesity ‘epidemic,’ it is one more carefully conducted study to be added to the mix.

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