Junk food near schools may be trivial factor for kids' weight

June 20, 2011

NPR Staff

(Getty Images)
Fast food next to schools may not be the problem.

You may think that having lots of stores and restaurants selling unhealthful food right next to high schools would be one of the reasons children are getting fatter.

But you might be wrong. Researchers in Maine have found something contrary to that conventional wisdom: Junk food sold near high schools does not seem to affect students' body mass index, or BMI.

"Soda — and fast food as well — is so ubiquitous in these kids' lives that having one more or one less venue where they can be purchased near the schools doesn't seem to make any bit of difference," says lead author of the study David E. Harris, a researcher at the University of Southern Maine. "If there's soda in the fridge at home, whether you can buy it near the school doesn't seem to make a difference."

Students from 11 Maine high schools answered questionnaires about their height, weight and junk food consumption — 552 students in all.

Researchers found that half of the students drank soda at least once a week and more than 10 percent drank it each day. Also, about two-thirds had visited a fast food restaurant selling burgers in the previous month. In the study, 12.5 percent of those surveyed were obese. According to the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 16.9 percent of children and adolescents are obese.

Researchers also collected data on food stores and restaurants that sold unhealthful food within a 2-kilometer radius of each school. But when they compared the data, the number and proximity of junk food stores didn't seem to impact the kids' BMI. The results of the study appear in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

However, Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center at University of Southern California, doesn't think the research has much significance. He notes that the study population was small, the environment is unique, and students were reporting their own weight and height, which could skew the results. "I don't put very much weight behind this study," Goren says.

The authors do acknowledge these limitations in their research.

But Goran agrees with the researchers on one point: Obesity can't be boiled down to just one factor. "It's all about individual choices," he says. "But, the more that we swim in an obesity-promoting environment, the harder it is to make those choices."