For better or worse, our environments shape every aspect of our lives, including the food we eat. In a new study, researchers from ASU and Rutgers University found that children who live in an environment with a higher prevalence of unhealthy food sources, such as convenience stores, are more likely to gain weight over time.
The paper, Evidence That Changes in Community Food Environments Lead to Changes in Children’s Weight: Results from a Longitudinal Prospective Cohort Study, was published Dec. 10 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The abstract follows.
Strategies to improve the community food environment have been recommended for addressing childhood obesity, but evidence substantiating their effectiveness is limited.
Our aim was to examine the impact of changes in availability of key features of the community food environment, such as supermarkets, small grocery stores, convenience stores, upgraded convenience stores, pharmacies, and limited service restaurants, on changes in children’s body mass index z scores (zBMIs).
We conducted a longitudinal cohort study.
Two cohorts of 3- to 15-year-old children living in 4 low-income New Jersey cities were followed during 2- to 5-year periods from 2009 through 2017. Data on weight status were collected at 2 time points (T1 and T2) from each cohort; data on food outlets in the 4 cities and within a 1-mile buffer around each city were collected multiple times between T1 and T2.
Main outcome measures
We measured change in children’s zBMIs between T1 and T2.
Changes in the food environment were conceptualized as exposure to changes in counts of food outlets across varying proximities (0.25 mile, 0.5 mile, and 1.0 mile) around a child’s home, over different lengths of time a child was exposed to these changes before T2 (12 months, 18 months, and 24 months). Multivariate models examined patterns in relationships between changes in zBMI and changes in the food environment.
Increased zBMIs were observed in children with greater exposure to convenience stores over time, with a consistent pattern of significant associations across varying proximities and lengths of exposure. For example, exposure to an additional convenience store over 24 months within 1 mile of a child’s home resulted in 11.7% higher odds (P = 0.007) of a child being in a higher zBMI change category at T2. Lower zBMIs were observed in children with increased exposure to small grocery stores selling an array of healthy items, with exposure to an additional small grocery store within 1 mile over 24 months, resulting in 37.3% lower odds (P < 0.05) of being in a higher zBMI change category at T2. No consistent patterns were observed for changes in exposure to supermarkets, limited service restaurants, or pharmacies.
Increased availability of small grocery stores near children’s homes may improve children’s weight status, whereas increased availability of convenience stores is likely to be detrimental.