As measured in city blocks, proximity to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores can impact a student’s chances of becoming obese, according to a new study published in the journal Obesity.

The research team found that among New York City children aged 5–18 living within a half-block of a fast-food outlet, 20% were obese and 38% were overweight. Similarly, among children who lived within a half-block of corner stores or bodegas, 21% were obese and 40% were overweight. For every half- or full block farther away that students lived from these food sources, obesity figures dropped from 1% to more than 4%, depending on the type of food outlet, according to the study authors.

The team’s findings stemmed from an analysis of New York City public school records from kindergarten through high school, which included periodic measurements of children’s height and weight. Researchers used mapping software to compare that information with how far every child lived from sellers of both unhealthy and healthy foods at fast-food outlets, corner stores, sit-down restaurants, and grocery stores.

According to the researchers, the study comparisons made were “highly neighborhood specific.” For example, kids in a small section of Harlem were compared only with other kids in the same part of Harlem.

“Our study indicates that living very close to food outlets with a lot of unhealthy, junk food choices is likely not good for reducing the risk of children being overweight or obese,” said study senior investigator Brian D. Elbel, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University School of Medicine. “Just having food outlets a block farther away—and potentially less convenient or accessible—can significantly lessen children’s chances of being obese or overweight.”

The researchers said the findings could support policies that limit fast-food outlets and corner stores to keep them at a minimum distance away from housing complexes or neighborhoods with persistently high rates of obesity.

Elbel noted that the study found no increase in obesity risk based on the distance from home to grocery stores and sit-down restaurants. He said this finding suggests that neighborhood “food deserts,” where fresh produce is in short supply, plays a small role one way or another in childhood obesity rates in urban areas.


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