LOS ANGELES—More than 2 million California teenagers drink at least one sugary beverage daily, and nearly 50% eat fast food twice a week, according to a new policy brief conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
Researchers used the 2007 California Health Interview Survey and the business database InfoUSA to calculate the Home and School Retail Food Environment Index, which measured the ratio of less healthy food outlets to the number of healthier outlets surrounding the homes and schools of California teens, and compared that measurement to teen fast-food consumption.
They found the average California teen has more than seven times as many fast-food outlets near home and school as healthier food outlets. Teens in more unhealthy neighborhoods were 17% more likely to drink soda every day and 18% more likely to eat fast food at least twice a week than their peers in healthier neighborhoods.
"You are what you eat. You are, also, where you live," said Susan Babey, a study co-author and a senior research scientist at the center. "And if you live in a place where there's a fast-food restaurant or convenience store on every block, with few healthier alternatives, you are likely to eat more junk."
Data showed that few counties, whether rural or urban, were immune from the unhealthy effects of junk-food outlet density. In San Benito, Sutter, Merced and Fresno counties, more than 70% of teens consume at least one soda per day. In Tulare, Riverside, Ventura and Kern counties, more than 55% of teens eat fast food at least twice a week. In total, 13 counties across California had Home and School Retail Food Environment Index scores of more than 8 points—an indication of a relatively unhealthy food environment.
"It is a travesty that our kids have better access to liquor stores and other unhealthy food outlets than a grocery store," said Robert K. Ross, M.D., president and CEO of the California Endowment, which funded the study. "We have put our children and youth in harm's way, and they are paying the price for our carelessness. If nothing is done, this will be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents."