(NEW YORK) -- Where you live may determine your child's weight, according to a series of new studies published this week.
In a special issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers from the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom used geographic information systems (GIS) to look at how features of neighborhoods children live and play in affect their health.
What they found is that characteristics of the neighborhoods children live in could be contributing to the high rate of obesity in the U.S. and elsewhere.
In one study, researchers used geographic information to determine which neighborhoods in King County, Wash., and San Diego County, Calif. rated highest in terms of physical activity and nutrition for children ages 6 through 11. A neighborhood received a high rating if there were ample opportunities to walk to places, such as stores and libraries as well as high-rated parks.
These neighborhoods also had numerous grocery stores or supermarkets where produce and healthy foods were available.
Neighborhoods that rated poorly had few markets available or had a large number of fast food restaurants and also did not offer many chances to walk or play in high-quality parks. There were also neighborhoods rated in between good and poor.
"The biggest difference we found in rates of obesity were in the places where the environment was good for both nutrition and physical activity, the rates were less than eight percent, but if the nutrition and physical activity were not good, the rates went up to 16 percent," said Brian Saelens, a co-author and professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children's Research Institute.
Saelens added that researchers controlled for other variables that could contribute to obesity, such as income, family status and parental body mass index (BMI).
In an accompanying paper, Saelens and his colleagues used GIS data to define "obesogenic" environments as those that offer little in the way of physical activity and good nutrition. The authors say GIS measures should be used to assess the relationship between physical activity, nutrition and obesity.
In a study of adolescents from Halifax, Nova Scotia, researchers found that rural teens get most of their physical activity during school, while urban and suburban teens get most of their activity during their commutes to and from school.
In another study, British researchers took a look at the relationship between obesity and the consumption of fast food by using GIS data to assess how many fast food restaurants were within about a half-mile of the homes of 13-year-olds.
A higher body mass index (BMI) and more body fat were both associated with eating fast food.
Food choices, availability of recreation areas and other neighborhood features also played a role in obesity among adolescents in the Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. area.
But other experts say while the environment does pose barriers to healthier lifestyles for children and adolescents, parents still must take measures to overcome them by making different choices.
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