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USM study targets obesity in high schools

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes | BDN
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes | BDN
A Burger King employee adjusts the menu showing the new oatmeal item in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011.
By Clarke Canfield, The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — Researchers in a new study hypothesized that students at Maine schools with nearby fast-food restaurants and convenience stores with junk food would be at greater risk of being overweight.

They were wrong.

Instead, the study headed by researchers at the University of Southern Maine did not find a direct link between students’ weights and obesity rates and the proximity of their schools to places that sell unhealthful foods. That’s because junk food and fast food are so pervasive that students don’t need a burger joint or a 7-Eleven to get them, the study concluded.

“These are dietary choices that are so ubiquitous in these kids’ lives that whether or not there’s a store selling soda near the school might not have an impact if they go home and open the refrigerator and there’s a sugared soda in the fridge,” said USM professor David Harris, one of the study’s authors.

With soda and candy sales for the most part banned in Maine schools since 2005, researchers set out to examine the relationship between the obesity risk for students and the proximity of stores selling high-calorie foods. The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was published this summer in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

For the study, researchers collected information about the height, weight and fast-food and soda consumption habits of 552 high school students at 11 schools. They asked students where they get their soda, sports drinks and other sweetened beverages anytime during the day and what types of fast-food restaurants they had visited in the previous month. They then looked at which schools were in proximity — within 2 kilometers, or 1.2 miles — of fast-food restaurants and stores that sell junk food.

The study then looked at whether students at schools that were close to those restaurants and stores were more overweight than students at schools that weren’t close to those types of places.

According to the report, a similar study in Los Angeles found a link between students’ weights and obesity rates and the presence of stores with unhealthful foods.

The new study, however, said the results may have differed because most of Maine is suburban or rural and that there are more fast-food restaurants and convenience stores near schools in urban settings, such as Los Angeles.

The findings of the Maine study show that getting students to eat healthful foods needs to be addressed not just at school, but at home and after-school events as well. Putting restrictions on soda and junk food sales in schools is a good start, but students and parents also need further education on the matter, Harris said.

“There’s no single magic bullet,” Harris said.

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