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Unhealthy food outlets linked to weight gain in children

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Living in close proximity to a high density of unhealthy eating outlets influence weight

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Researchers from University of East Anglia, Norwich, examined weight status in children aged four to five and 10 to 11 years and compared it to unhealthy food outlets that included pizza places, burger places and sweet shops.

Professor Andy Jones, Public Health from UEA's Norwich Medical School and lead author of study along with Andreea Cetateanu, PhD student, from UEA's school of Environmental Sciences, used data from the National Child Measurement Programme, which records the height and weight of one million children at the majority of state schools in England annually.

The team took into account factors such as people living in rural locations having to travel further to buy food, and other variables such as the proportion of children living in low income households and measurements of green space which have both been associated with exercise in children.

The researchers found a positive association n between the density of unhealthy food outlets in a neighborhood and the prevalence of overweight and obesity in children.

They also found that the association was particularly significant for older children.

The researchers write “Children's weight status may be influenced by their local environment, particularly older children, but associations between obesity and deprivation appear not strongly due to local food environment characteristics.”

According to Professor Jones “We found that the more unhealthy food outlets there are in a neighborhood, the greater the number of overweight and obese children. The results were more pronounced in secondary school children who have more spending power to choose their own food.”

"But the association was reversed in areas with more healthy food options available.”

"This is important because there is an epidemic of obesity among children in the UK and other industrialized countries. It can lead to childhood diabetes, low self-esteem, and orthopedic and cardiovascular problems. It is also a big problem because around 70 per cent of obese children and teenagers also go on to have weight problems in later life."

Cetateanu adds "We know that fast food is more common in deprived areas of the UK and that over-weight children are more likely to come from socio-economically deprived populations. But associations between children's weight and the availability of junk food have not been shown before at a national scale.”

"If we can use these findings to influence planning decisions and help create a more healthy food environment, we may be able to help reverse this trend for future generations.”

"Public health policies to reduce obesity in children should incorporate strategies to prevent high concentrations of fast food and other unhealthy food outlets. But there is no quick fix -- and any interventions for tackling childhood obesity and creating environments that are more supportive for both physical activity and better dietary choices must be part of the bigger picture looking at the whole obesity system."

It is hoped that the findings will help shape planning policy to help tackle childhood obesity.

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