City living linked to adolescent obesity, study suggests

Research finds proximity of fast-food restaurants the most important factor in determining adolescent obesity

The study suggested that policies aimed at preventing adolescent obesity should focus on creating healthier city landscapes. AP
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A new study has identified a link between urban landscape and obesity and eating disorders in adolescence.

Calling for policy changes to improve public health, the research published in the journal Obesity found that human-made surroundings, especially in cities, were a significant indicator of adolescents’ body mass index (BMI), weight and eating behaviour.

It found that the built environment, such as the proximity of fast-food restaurants versus parks and recreation facilities, was the most telling factor in determining adolescent obesity, while social and economic factors such as crime, social support, household income and education were not linked directly to the chances of obesity or eating behaviour.

The researchers set out to investigate the role of the built, social and economic environments in adolescent obesity.

Researchers analysed data from the Military Teenagers Environments, Exercise and Nutrition Study — a cohort study of adolescents in military families.

Information was collected on their BMI, weight, obesity levels and self-reported dietary and exercise habits.

The results revealed that exposure to more healthy surroundings for more than two years was associated with lower probability of obesity and lower overweight or obesity status, although not with BMI scores.

It was found that social and economic environmental factors were not directly linked to obesity risk or eating disorders in adolescence. Photo: Chris Radburn

The built environment was found to be the most crucial factor in determining adolescent obesity, with the proximity of fast-food restaurants, parks and recreation facilities to homes being a significant factor. In contrast, social and economic environments were not associated with any outcomes.

Amanda Staiano, associate professor at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Centre, said: “An interesting finding is that it was specifically the built environment that mattered — features like how close the adolescent lives to fast-food restaurants versus park and recreation facilities.

“Less important were the social and economic environmental factors like crime, social support, household income, household education — and while very important for adolescents' health, these factors were not directly tied to obesity risk or eating behaviours in this study, and these factors are also harder to modify.”

The results of the study suggest that policies aimed at preventing adolescent obesity should focus on improving the built surroundings.

Improvements suggested include limiting fast-food outlets near school zones, creating street policies to ensure pedestrians and cyclists are safe on the roads, supporting local councils to build more playgrounds and parks, and making it easier for families to use public sports facilities at weekends.

The study authors noted that such enhancements would require input and action from many stakeholders, including urban planners, elected officials and research scientists, as well as community members, to create healthier spaces in which adolescents can play, learn and live.

Updated: March 21, 2023, 7:19 AM