Passing more fast food restaurants on way to school won’t impact children’s weight, study concludes

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Are your children destined for a “super-sized” future just because three new fast food restaurants opened up in town? Not necessarily, according to a new study. Researchers report the number of fast food locations on the route between a child’s home and school will not affect that child’s weight.

It’s no secret that childhood obesity is a major problem in the United States. As of today, the study estimates that a staggering 18.4 percent of U.S. kids between the ages of six and 11 years-old are obese. That figure increases to 20.6 percent for American adolescents between 12 and 19. While this troubling trend among America’s youth is almost certainly the result of multiple factors, many public health officials have placed much of the blame on the proliferation and copious amount of fast food restaurants all over the nation.

It’s difficult to drive in any direction for more than a few miles without encountering a McDonald’s or some other big name chain. So, it certainly makes sense to connect fast food culture with America’s childhood obesity problem. Mom and dad live busy lives, and a quick stop at the drive-thru for dinner is often much more appealing than an extra few hours spent in the kitchen. In response to all this, many U.S. cities, such as Austin and New York, have already begun considering a ban on fast food locations close to schools.

Will banning fast food actually help kids?

To find out, researchers investigated the impact of fast food availability on childhood weight across gender, race, and location. More specifically, study authors used a novel identification strategy to assess how changes in school routes as a child matures influences their weight. For example, if the route to elementary school passes three fast food restaurants, will that student develop a weight problem a few years later if their way to high school now offers six fast food restaurants?

Then, researchers matched up Arkansas student BMI data between 2004 and 2010 with each student’s home address and school locations.

When it came time to decide on which eating establishments constitute “fast food;” researchers cast a wide net. The study included obvious chains like Wendy’s and Burger King, as well as places like DQ, Taco Bell, KFC, Subway, Quiznos, and Chick-Fil-A. However, the team did not add in specialty stores which only sell certain items like ice cream, donuts, or coffee.

Is location really key to weight gain?

The results reveal most children don’t encounter any fast food restaurants within a half-mile of their home (69.6%). Just over 45 percent have at least one restaurant located within a half-mile of their school. Even after accounting for more fast food exposure as a child matures and changes school locations, researchers ultimately conclude that fluctuations in fast food exposure have no impact on BMI.

These findings held true even after study authors accounted for numerous factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, urban living kids, rural living kids, high-income families, and low-income families.

“Policies that place restrictions on actions of individuals and businesses are costly,” says study author Michael R. Thomsen in a media release. ” We see this with the response to Covid-19. Even when imposed with the most well-intentioned of objectives, people resist attempts to constrain their will. If governments are going to pursue a strategy that requires the investment of time and monetary resources to get a policy passed and enforced, it must be for tangible good, not simply a feeling of having done something. Although there is a strong correlation between the availability of fast-food and obesity, the evidence for a causal relationship remains weak. With limited political capital, policy fights over limiting access to fast-food may not be worth the public health returns.”

The study is published in Q Open.