Surprising Study Questions Environmental Impact on Teen Diet

While childhood obesity often gets blames for environmental wellness causes, a new survey has thrown a spanner into the works. According to the study, which was published in the July/August issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour, having a fast food outlet near your child’s school might not actually have an impact on their weight.


The researchers polled more than 550 high school teenagers throughout the state of Maine, and found – somewhat unsurprisingly – that the young people were indeed consumers of fast food favourites like burgers, chips, pizza and soft drinks. However, the unexpected finding was that these teens were pulled towards unhealthful foods because of poor nutritional wellness and knowledge, rather than the location of fast-food outlets.


According to study co-author Janet Whatley Blum, an associate professor in the department of exercise, health and sports science at the University of Southern Maine, ‘Our hypothesis was that the so-called “built environment” – what a person’s environment around them might be – would have an influence on the [teens’] diet and obesity rate. But in terms of their school environment, we did not find that.’ She added, ‘We think the reason for that is that the availability of unhealthy foods is basically ubiquitous. So while the students said they do go and buy it around their schools, they also said that they also get that same food from home and from local stores near their home. So whether or not fast-food places are near to their schools really doesn’t change the overall situation.’


The findings were ‘surprising, yet not surprising’ to Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre at Dallas. She explained, ‘Knowledge is power. Offering the knowledge of what foods are health-promoting and beneficial is certainly the first place to start. But behaviour based on knowledge and the built environment both impact food choices. The question is, what has the biggest impact? In this case, they’re saying the built environment around these teens has less impact than what the children know about nutrition, and also has lesser impact perhaps than what’s going on in the home.’


Sandon noted, ‘Past research has looked at what students bring to school when they bring their own lunch, and it’s actually often less nutritious than if they ate a school lunch, which means that what’s going on in the home is often worse in terms of giving kids a sense of what to do in terms of making healthy food decisions. And that might explain these findings.’ She urged, ‘If we focus on informing kids as to how best to think about what they’re eating, that may be a more powerful way to affect their decisions than trying to change the built environment around them.’

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