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Fruit and vegetable prices influence children’s weight

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Higher prices mean higher BMI for children but reducing prices may mean a healthy weight

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Both obesity and food insecurity are important public health problems facing young children in the United States. A lack of affordable, healthy foods is one of the neighborhood factors presumed to underlie both food insecurity and obesity among children.

Researchers from the American University examined the associations between local food prices and children’s BMI, weight, and food security outcomes.

For the study, researchers linked data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, a nationally representative study of children from infancy to age five, to local food price data from the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) Cost-of-Living Index (n = 11 700 observations). The study focused on households under 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or a family of four earning $70,650 in 2013.

In general food prices have leaned downward in recent decades, particularly the prices of snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages, the real prices of restaurant meals and fruits and vegetables have increased. Fruit and vegetable prices increased by 17 percent between 1997 and 2003 alone.

The results showed children living in areas with higher-priced fruits and vegetables are associated with higher child BMI, and this association is driven by the prices of fresh (versus frozen or canned) fruits and vegetables, compared to children living in areas with lower priced fruits and vegetables.

According to Dr. Taryn Morrissey, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration and Policy and lead author of study "There is a small, but significant, association between the prices of fruit and vegetables and higher child BMI.”

When the prices of fruits and vegetables go up, families may buy less of them and substitute cheaper foods that may not be as healthy and have more calories, said Dr. Morrissey.

Dr. Alison Jacknowitz, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Public Administration and Policy and co-author of study commented "These associations are driven by changes in the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables rather than frozen or canned.”

BMI is a reliable indicator of total body fat, which is related to the risk of life-threatening diseases. More than 26 percent of 2- to 5-year-old children nationwide were considered overweight, defined as having a BMI above the 85th percentile, in 2009 and 2010, up from 21 percent a decade earlier.

The results also showed higher-priced soft drinks are associated with a lower likelihood of being overweight, and surprisingly, higher fast food prices are associated with a greater likelihood of being overweight.

The authors concluded “Policies that reduce the costs of fresh fruits and vegetables may be effective in promoting healthy weight outcomes among young children.”

The study did not find strong associations between food prices and food insecurity, meaning families forced by a lack of money to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgoes food at some point.

This study appears in the journal Pediatrics.

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