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Surroundings contribute to teen obesity

By Nanci Hellmich

USA Today

9/24/07

Many teens seem doomed to become too heavy by the reality of their environment.

That's the conclusion reached by research out today. It also says teens in lower-income families are exposed to more fast food, junk food and other toxic environmental influences than those in higher income brackets.

Obesity experts have been saying for years that children are getting heavier because portions are huge; junk foods and fast foods are everywhere; and exercise has taken a back seat, replaced by sedentary pursuits such as computer games and watching TV.

Several new studies by researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the University of Michigan examined teenagers' surroundings, and their findings confirm earlier research. Among the conclusions in a special supplement of the American Journalof Preventive Medicine:

•Many middle schools and high schools offer a lot more unhealthful foods and beverages than nutritious foods.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: Food companies | Surroundings

•Students are less likely to participate in physical education classes as they get older. Principals estimate 90% of eighth-graders take P.E. compared with 34% of 12th-graders. (Gym class is often mandatory in middle school but an elective in the upper grades.)

•Food products account for 26% of TV ads seen by children ages 12-17. The majority of those ads are for fast food, sweets and beverages. Virtually all the products are high in fat, added sugars or sodium. African-American young people, who statistics show watch more daytime TV, see more of these ads than white teens do.

•Teens are more likely to be overweight if they live near convenience stores and are less likely to be overweight if they live near supermarkets that offer a wide variety of healthful foods.

•A higher percentage of restaurants in lower-income neighborhoods and high-minority urban communities serve fast foods than in higher-income neighborhoods.

"Kids and their parents are fighting against an environment that makes it almost impossible to eat healthfully, engage in physical activity and maintain a healthy weight," says Frank Chaloupka, professor of economics and public health at the University of Illinois.

Among the environmental changes he and his colleagues recommend:

•Businesses must put supermarkets in "food 'deserts' in inner cities so people have access to healthful choices," Chaloupka says.

•Food companies must live up to the commitments they have made to stop marketing unhealthful foods to children.

•Schools must create more opportunities for physical activity and limit offerings of unhealthful foods and beverages. "There are moves in this direction, but we haven't seen the payoff yet," he says.

Meanwhile, parents can make a difference, says social psychologist Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan.

"Clearly parents are role models for kids," Johnston says. "In recent years, we've had a decline in young people eating fruits and green vegetables, an increase in the proportion of them not eating breakfast on a regular basis, and the problem of many of them not getting enough sleep."

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