Health

Is fast food too accessible to kids?

Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia is proposing to restrict fast food restaurants opening near schools. Is this a good idea? Would it improve the diets of children and teens?

Charlotte Catholic High School students use a crosswalk in front of the school that leads to a McDonald’s in the Carmel Commons Shopping Center, Wednesday afternoon, May 11, 2016. Mecklenburg’s health director has proposed a provocative way to improve the health of teenagers: Restricting fast-food restaurants from opening near high schools Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
Beth Racine

Beth RaciYou may have read that Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia is proposing to restrict fast food restaurants opening near schools. Is this a good idea? Would it improve the diets of children and teens?

You may have read that Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia is proposing to restrict fast food restaurants opening near schools. Is this a good idea? Would it improve the diets of children and teens?

Colleagues and I at the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services conducted a project a few years ago looking at the concentration of full-service and fast food restaurants in Mecklenburg County and found that the greater the number of fast food restaurants in a neighborhood, the higher the rate of premature death to heart disease and diabetes. We don’t know the exact nature of the relationship between premature death and the prevalence of fast food restaurants, but we did see a relationship.

Teens have a particular affinity for fast food. In another study, we found that 30 percent of adolescents in the United States ate fast food four or more times per week. More than half used their own money – about $8 per week. Those teens were more likely to drink soda four or more times per week, compared to teens who did not spend their own money at restaurants.

These statistics are troubling for several reasons. The childhood obesity rate in the United States has quadrupled in the last 40 years. When I was a child in the 1970s, the national childhood obesity rate was about 5 percent; now the childhood obesity rate in North Carolina is between 20 and 30 percent. Meanwhile, sales at fast food restaurants have increased almost 12 times, from  $16 billion in 1975 to $191 billion in 2013.

When presenting the problem of childhood obesity to community stakeholders, the focus for healthcare professional is often on educating parents. While nutrition education is essential, it alone will not be sufficient to address the issue of childhood obesity. I have found little correlation between nutrition knowledge and dietary behavior. We live in an environment with tasty, tempting food everywhere. Some of us can resist it; many of us cannot.

Dr. Plescia’s goal is to provide a healthy food environment for children and adolescents. And certainly, creative thinking on this issue will be needed, but we cannot know the potential effectiveness of a strategy like this until we do the research. Meanwhile, the College of Health and Human Services is committed to finding ways to continue to partner with Dr. Plescia, the health department and the community to ensure Charlotteans have the knowledge and access needed to make healthy food choices.

Dr. Beth Racine is an associate professor in the Department of Public Health of Sciences at the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services

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