Local neighbourhoods influence children's nutrition

Fall 2016

From walking to school to visiting the playground, children interact with their neighbourhoods every day. Lawson Health Research Institute’s Dr. Jason Gilliland is a leader in the study of how physical environments influence children’s health. This includes the study of how children’s surroundings affect their nutrition.

Almost one third of Canadian children are overweight or obese according to Statistics Canada. Poor nutrition is one of the leading causes. This is concerning since childhood obesity can lead to serious health problems, including diabetes and heart disease.

In a recent study, Dr. Gilliland and his team used GPS technology to examine how children’s exposure to junk food outlets influences their eating habits. The study followed 654 students, aged nine to 13, from across London and Middlesex County. Each student was given a GPS logger to record their trips to and from school over the course of two weeks. The GPS logger recorded each time a student entered within 50 metres of a junk food outlet, those stores or restaurants where they might make an unhealthy food purchase, and researchers monitored each time that a junk food purchase was made.

The study found that exposure to junk food outlets significantly influenced children’s nutritional choices, especially on the way home from school. The amount of time exposed increased their chances of making a junk food purchase, increasing from 1.7 per cent at less than one minute of exposure to 16 per cent at 16 to 17 minutes of exposure.

“This study provides strong evidence that a child’s surrounding food environment influences their food purchasing behavior,” says Dr. Gilliland, a scientist at Lawson’s Children’s Health Research Institute and Director of the Human Environments Analysis Laboratory at Western University. “Unlike past studies, these results provide strong accuracy through the use of GPS technology.”

Dr. Gilliland’s team also found that trips made by car were much more likely to result in a junk food purchase than those made by an active mode of travel like walking. Those odds further increased with length of exposure, from 2.7 times more likely at five minutes of exposure to 4.4 times more likely at 15 minutes of exposure. Trips made by bus did not result in a junk food purchase.

“At this age, trips by car are made under adult supervision,” says Dr. Gilliland. “This suggests the powerful influence that parents can have on their children’s eating habits. It also suggests that an active mode of travel may be healthier, not only for physical activity, but also for nutrition.”

Surprisingly, trips made by female adolescents were more likely to result in a junk food purchase than those made by males. While this may be due to female adolescents having more money in the Canadian culture of babysitting, Dr. Gilliland also suggests the importance of health promotion campaigns that target males and females separately.

“Overall, this study’s findings have significant implications for municipal planners, school board officials, public health officials and other decision makers,” says Dr. Gilliland. “This provides clear evidence that bylaws and policies should be enacted that restrict the concentration of junk food outlets around schools.”

Dr. Gilliland also points to the importance of educating adolescents on making healthy food choices. “We may not be able to change the landscape of our food environments overnight,” said Dr. Gilliland. “But we can work to promote healthy eating in innovative ways through education and even technology.”

Previous Article
Next Article
Dr. Jason Gilliland holds up the GPS technology used in his recent study.