Knowledge for better food systems

Childhood obesity linked to distance from fast food outlets

Children in New York City who live less than 0.025 miles (about half a city block) from a fast-food outlet are more likely to be obese or overweight than children who live further away, according to this paper. The probability of a child being overweight was up to 4.4% lower and the probability of obesity was up to 2.9% lower for children who lived further away, relative to those who lived closest to fast-food outlets. The study used over 3.5 million data points (measurements of body mass index) from the New York City public school system between 2009 and 2013. 

Proximity to supermarkets and wait-service restaurants was not significantly linked to childhood overweight or obesity (in the latter case, possibly because children and adolescents are three times more likely to visit fast-food outlets than wait-service restaurants). The authors note that many food policies currently focus on improving access to outlets considered to sell relatively healthy foods, i.e. supermarkets. Given the results of this study, however, they suggest that perhaps policies should focus on restricting the spread of fast-food outlets, although such policies are likely to be less popular.




This study aimed to examine the relationship between proximity to healthy and unhealthy food outlets around children's homes and their weight outcomes.


A total of 3,507,542 student‐year observations of height and weight data from the 2009‐2013 annual FitnessGram assessment of New York City public school students were used. BMI z scores were calculated, student obesity or obesity/overweight was determined using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention growth charts, and these data were combined with the locations of four food outlet types (fast‐food restaurants, wait‐service restaurants, corner stores, and supermarkets) to calculate distance to the nearest outlet. Associations between weight status outcomes and distance to these food outlet types were examined using neighborhood (census tract) fixed effects.


Living farther than 0.025 mile (about half of a city block) from the nearest fast‐food restaurant was associated with lower obesity and obesity/overweight risk and lower BMI z scores. Results ranged from 2.5% to 4.4% decreased obesity. Beyond this distance, there were generally no impacts of the food environment and little to no impact of other food outlet types.


Proximity to fast‐food restaurants was inversely related to childhood obesity, but no relationships beyond that were seen. These findings can help better inform policies focused on food access, which could, in turn, reduce childhood obesity.



Elbel, B. Tamura, K., T. McDermott, Z. T., Wu, E. and Schwartz, A. E. (2019). Childhood Obesity and the Food Environment: A Population‐Based Sample of Public School Children in New York City. Obesity, Early View.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource building block What is the nutrition transition?

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North America

North America is the northern subcontinent of the Americas covering about 16.5% of the Earth's land area. This large continent has a range of climates spanning Greenland’s permanent ice sheet and the dry deserts of Arizona. Both Canada and the USA are major food producers and some of the largest food exporters in the world. Industrial farms are the norm in North America, with high yields relative to other regions and only 2% of the population involved in agriculture.

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