A wider range of food outlets near homes and schools has been linked to healthier diets in children, according to new research.
The study, carried out by NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, looked at the diets of more than 1,000 six-year-olds in the Hampshire city to see the impact of the local environment and access to food outlets.
They marked an area around each child’s home and school to create an “activity zone” where they spend the majority of their time every day, and recorded the number and type of food outlets within each zone.
Parents were asked to report what their child ate for three months and the results, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, showed that access to a greater number and range of food outlets, as well as access to healthier shops such as greengrocers, was linked to a better diet.
Dr Christina Vogel, a senior research fellow in public health nutrition at the University of Southampton, said: “These findings show better diet scores were associated with exposure to a greater number of healthy outlets.
“The results strengthen the argument for local authorities to increase the number of healthy food outlets to which young children are exposed, which is of particular note for Southampton where children are exposed to more unhealthy food outlets.”
The researchers have called for authorities to take action after the study, released during National Obesity Awareness Week, showed that children in Southampton were exposed to more unhealthy food outlets, such as takeaways and fast-food restaurants, than healthy food stores.
Figures from NHS Digital in October last year showed that 9.6% of children in reception classes in 2016-17 were obese, compared with 9.3% the year before. One-fifth of Year 6 children (aged 10-11) were obese, the same as in 2015-16.