Study ties fast food to kids’ weight gain

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/24/2020 8:35:46 PM
Modified: 2/24/2020 8:35:42 PM

LEBANON — While a hamburger, French fry or doughnut here or there might not make much difference to a young child’s health, regularly consuming fast food might be a problem, according to a new study led by a Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth researcher.

The study, published on Jan. 31 in the journal Pediatric Obesity, looked at the fast food consumption of 541 southern New Hampshire children between the ages of 3 and 5 over the course of a year.

“What I think is really striking (is that we) do see this association between fast food habits and weight gain,” said Jennifer Emond, the lead author of the study.

Emond, who is an assistant professor of biomedical data sciences and pediatrics at Geisel, and her team found that the more fast food preschoolers consume, the more likely they are to become overweight or obese over time. Other research has found that children who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk for developing chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and depression.

To conduct the study, the researchers measured the height and weight of children and parents at the beginning and end of a year, beginning between March 2014 and October 2015.

Throughout the year, parents completed six follow-up online surveys eight weeks apart.

At baseline, 18% of children in the study were overweight and nearly 10% were obese. Over the course of the year, about 8% became either overweight or obese, and 9% either went from obese to overweight or overweight to healthy weight.

With each additional instance of fast food consumption per week, the researchers found the children were 38% more likely to become either overweight or obese. The average fast food consumption was lowest for children who had a healthy weight at both baseline and the one-year mark and for children who transitioned from overweight to healthy weight over the course of the year. Fast food consumption was highest among children who gained weight or were obese at both the beginning and end of the study period.

Among other questions, the surveys asked how many times in the previous week children had something to eat or drink from any of 11 fast food restaurants, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Chick-fil-A, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, Dairy Queen and Taco Bell.

On average, children who ate fast food ate at one of these 11 restaurants twice a week during the study. The children most often consumed items from Dunkin’ or one of the three burger restaurants included in the study.

For their participation, parents received up to $150 in gift cards and children received two toys, one at the first visit and one at the final clinic visit.

Because of the clear association between fast-food consumption and weight gain, the researchers noted that reducing or eliminating fast food might help reduce weight gain and the negative health consequences associated with it.

Diane Gilbert-Diamond, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Geisel, said that though other studies have made a link between fast food and pediatric weight gain in the past, this study makes an especially strong case because it controls for other factors such as exercise and “screen time,” such as watching television.

Because of this direct connection between fast-food consumption and weight gain, the study “suggests that limiting fast-food intake and replacing it with meals cooked at home could be protective against weight gain in young children,” said Gilbert-Diamond, who has collaborated with Emond on other projects, but did not participate in this study.

On a policy front, Gilbert-Diamond said the study suggests there is more to be done to regulate marketing to children, such as the use of toys as incentives.

The study’s findings didn’t surprise Dr. Josh White, chief medical officer at Randolph’s Gifford Medical Center. White said the body converts the excess carbohydrates and sugars found in foods such as buns, fries and ketchup to fat.

Even so, White said he doesn’t blame parents for making the convenient, cheap choice.

It’s “much, much more expensive to eat well than it is to eat fast food,” he said.

Families might not always have time to make a home-cooked meal or the money to make a trip to the farmers market, he said.

White said that hospitals like his are trying to address some of the challenges families face in accessing healthy food. Gifford, several other Upper Valley hospitals and Woodstock schools are participants in a Vermont Foodbank program VeggieVanGo that delivers free, fresh produce to certain sites around the state each month. The VeggieVanGo stops also offer participants tips on how to use the produce, he said.

Studies like this are important, White said, in encouraging policy discussions targeted at reducing child obesity, such as food labeling requirements and restrictions on giant-sized sodas.

“This is a big deal,” White said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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