Obesity up at schools near fast food

March 7, 2009 2:44:26 PM PST
Teenagers are more likely to be obese if their school is located close to fast food restaurants, according to a new study from the University of California, Berkeley.

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Economists examined California's 3 million 9th grade students and determined that obesity rates rise by more than 5 percent when fast food restaurants are located within a tenth of a mile of a school.

Economist Vikram Pathania, who participated in the study, said more research is necessary to determine the exact reason, but typical human behavior suggests a very simple answer.

"It's rational that you just go to the closest restaurant," he said.

In the past three decades, child obesity has skyrocketed in the United States. While the medical and public health communities have been examining this phenomenon for years, Pathania said economists are delving into the socioeconomic components of this epidemic.

The number of fast food outlets in the nation has doubled in this same time frame, according to the report.

The study, released earlier this week, said that students who go to school within the one-tenth mile zone consume 30 to 100 more calories a day than those who do not have such access to fast food.

One-tenth of a mile seems to be the magic number, Pathania said.

"The fact that it came through so strongly was a surprise."

Researchers found no connection between obesity and fast food when schools are located a quarter-mile or more from fast food restaurant chains.

The report also included a similar analysis examining pregnant mothers found that proximity between home and fast food had a much smaller impact.

From these results, the team of economists concluded that "policies restricting access to fast food near schools could have significant effects on obesity among school children," the report said.

In California 7 percent of high schools have a fast food restaurant within a tenth of a mile, research showed. Pathania said these schools tended to be in urban areas, and have more Hispanic students and more students eligible for free lunches.

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