Fast food not the major cause of rising childhood obesity rates, study finds

Dec. 16, 2013

For several years, many have been quick to attribute rising fast-food consumption as the major factor causing rapid increases in childhood obesity. However a new study found that fast-food consumption is simply a byproduct of a much bigger problem: poor all-day-long dietary habits that originate in children’s homes.

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Dr. Barry Popkin

The study, titled “The association of fast food consumption with poor dietary outcomes and obesity among children: is it the fast food or the remainder of diet?,” was produced by researchers at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and published in the latest issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study’s researchers found that children’s consumption of fast food is only a small part of a much more pervasive dietary pattern that is fostered at an early age by children’s parents and caregivers. The pattern includes few fruits and vegetables, relying instead on high amounts of processed food and sugar-sweetened beverages. These food choices also are reinforced in the meals students are offered at school.

“This is really what is driving children’s obesity,” said Barry Popkin, PhD, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, whose team led the study. “Eating fast foods is just one behavior that results from those bad habits. Just because children who eat more fast food are the most likely to become obese does not prove that calories from fast foods bear the brunt of the blame.”

The study examined data acquired through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2007 and 2010. Dietary intake, including whether foods and beverages were obtained in fast-food establishments or elsewhere, was evaluated in 4,466 children who were 2 years to 18 years of age. They were further categorized as being nonconsumers of fast food (50 percent of the children), low consumers (less than or equal to 30 percent of calories from fast foods; 40 percent of the children), or high consumers (more than30 percent of calories from fast foods; 10 percent  of the children). The researchers then determined which factors were most related to dietary adequacy and risk for obesity.

“The study presented strong evidence that the children’s diet beyond fast- food consumption is more strongly linked to poor nutrition and obesity,” said Jennifer Poti, doctoral candidate in UNC’s Department of Nutrition and co-author of the study. “While reducing fast-food intake is important, the rest of a child’s diet should not be overlooked.”

Popkin said he is certainly no fan of fast-food consumption, but actually knowing where the problem originates is important if we are to invest in solutions that foster healthier habits, including reducing the consumption of sugary drinks and emphasizing more fresh vegetables and fruit.

“Children who rely on fast foods may tend to have parents who do not have the means, desire or time to purchase or prepare healthy foods at home,” Popkin said. “This is really what is driving children’s obesity and what needs to be addressed in any solution.”

The  study abstract is available online; the full article is available in print or by online subscription.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu