Neighborhood and Home Food Environment and Children's Diet and Obesity

Evidence from Military Personnel's Installation Assignment

Published in: Social Science & Medicine, 2016

Posted on RAND.org on April 29, 2016

by Victoria Shier, Nancy Nicosia, Ashlesha Datar

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Research Question

  1. What is the association of the neighborhood food environment (both objective and perceived) with dietary behaviors and BMI of children from military families?

Research and policy initiatives are increasingly focused on the role of neighborhood food environment in children's diet and obesity. However, existing evidence relies on observational data that is limited by neighborhood selection bias. The Military Teenagers' Environments, Exercise, and Nutrition Study (M-TEENS) leverages the quasi-random variation in neighborhood environment generated by military personnel's assignment to installations to examine whether neighborhood food environments are associated with children's dietary behaviors and BMI. Our results suggest that neither the actual nor the perceived availability of particular food outlets in the neighborhood is associated with children's diet or BMI. The availability of supermarkets and convenience stores in the neighborhood was not associated with where families shop for food or children's dietary behaviors. Further, the type of store that families shop at was not associated with the healthiness of food available at home. Similarly, availability of fast food and restaurants was unrelated to children's dietary behaviors or how often children eat fast food or restaurant meals. However, the healthiness of food available at home was associated with healthy dietary behaviors while eating at fast food outlets and restaurants were associated with unhealthy dietary behaviors in children. Further, parental supervision, including limits on snack foods and meals eaten as a family, was associated with dietary behaviors. These findings suggest that focusing only on the neighborhood food environment may ignore important factors that influence children's outcomes. Future research should also consider how families make decisions about what foods to purchase, where to shop for foods and eating out, how closely to monitor their children's food intake, and, ultimately how these decisions collectively impact children's outcomes.

Key Findings

  • There were no significant relationships between the availability of fast food outlets, restaurants, convenience stores, small grocery stores, and supermarkets in the child's neighborhood and his/her BMI, obesity, or diet.
  • There were no significant relationships between the availability of particular food outlets and where the family shops for groceries.
  • Where the family shopped for groceries was not associated with the healthiness of food available at home, but healthier home food environments (as reported by parents) were significantly associated with a healthier diet for children.
  • Parental limits on sugary drinks, salty snacks, and sweets and the number of breakfast meals and dinner meals eaten together were also associated with healthier dietary behaviors in their children.

Recommendation

Focusing only on the availability of particular food outlets in the neighborhood may ignore other important factors, including how families decide what food to buy and where to buy it, availability of healthy foods at home, consumption of fast food and restaurant meals, and parenting.

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