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Obesity study focuses on fast food proximity

By Anthony Fletcher , 07-Feb-2006

Groundbreaking research in the UK will determine whether a link between obesity and the distance to the nearest fast food outlet can be made.

Researchers from Staffordshire University plan to map out the lifestyle behaviour in the city of Stoke-on-Trent and link these to health outcomes.

Principal investigator, Dr Rachel Davey from the Centre for Sport and Exercise Research, said that the research team would be looking at physical activity level and obesity and how this is related to people's proximity to food outlets, accessibility to green spaces and recreational/leisure facilities.

"It's the first project we're aware of in the UK that focuses on a socio-environmental approach to disease prevention," she said.

The project comes on the back of the Wanless report, which criticised the NHS for being too focused on cures and called for people and communities to become more fully engaged with their own health. And it also follows a growing body of research that suggests that the extent of the obesity problem in Europe is storing up major problems for the future.

The Commission now says that 14 million Europeans are obese or overweight, of which more than 3 million are children. Obesity-related illnesses, which include heart disease and diabetes, account for up to 7 per cent of healthcare costs in the Union. In some Member States, over a quarter of the adult population is now obese.

Unsurprisingly, the food industry has come under attack. The UK's Food Advertising Unit recently responded to calls for the government to intervene in the current marketing of foods high in salt, sugar and fat to children by saying that appropriate action was already being taken by the industry, and that food marketing was not the root cause of the current obesity crisis.

"The industry is fully engaged in the current reviews to restrict the advertising codes, which are being conducted by Ofcom and the department of health-led Food and Drink Advertising and Promotion Forum," said FAU director Jeremy Preston.

In any case, Stoke-on-Trent was seen as the ideal location to conduct the research.

"Well over half of the city falls into the bottom 20 per cent of areas for health in England under the Index of Multiple Deprivation," said Staffordshire University geographer Jon Fairburn. "Hopefully, this research can point the way as to how to make our urban areas healthier places to live and work in."

Davey added that although the project is to be carried out in Stoke-on-Trent, the underlying approach could apply in any urban city in the UK.

The project is one of 26 successful projects announced under the National Prevention Research Initiative, which was set up to stimulate high quality research aimed at the prevention of killer diseases. The research, which will be managed by the Medical Research Council, is part of a co-ordinated UK initiative aimed at tackling the rising burden of chronic disease and improving public health.

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