Kids With Grass Underfoot, Who Snack In Smaller Groups, Less Likely to be Overweight

Another reason you should drag your joystick-wielding tykes to experience nature in all its natural splendor: Urban kids who live around green parks and lawns may be less likely to be overweight, according to a study in the March/April issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.Part of this is just common sense. The researchers, who based their study on the old chestnut that environmental conditions have a hold over the growing obesity epidemic by affecting physical activity and nutrition. Densely populated neighborhoods with more grass and foliage were associated with a reduced risk of obesity among children because access to plants and outdoor play spaces increased their activity levels.

"I was intrigued by our results," said lead author Gilbert Liu, M.D., of the Children's Health Services Research Program at Indiana University School of Medicine. He said that while his urban neighbors may see youth "playing kick-the-can in the middle of the street most would agree that places in the city that have shade trees or grass or nice landscaping make physical activity more enjoyable and likely."

The authors studied 7,334 children between the ages of 3 and 18 residing in Marion County, Ind., and determined whether they were overweight by calculating their body mass index, or BMI. The amount of green landscape, as well as proximity to fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and supermarkets to each child's home, was factored in using geographic information and satellite imagery.

Still, Thomas Glass, PhD, of the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says that linking green space and obesity can be tricky. "We may say that green spaces are associated with kids' activity level, but we really don't know for sure," Glass said. "People who live in green spaces areas versus not might be different in a lot of ways that have nothing to do with the presence of green space. There are a lot of parks in Baltimore, for example, but you can point to a lot of factors, such as crime, to explain why you find those parks empty of kids playing."

But before you start furiously thumbing in play dates for your kids on your BlackBerry, here's yet another cocktail-party factoid to take into account. Another study, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, found that children who snack in big groups eat almost a third more than when snacking with just a couple of pals.

Animals and human adults exhibit the same behavior. In fact, grown-ups eat 30 to 50 percent more in groups than when alone because increased social interaction tends to extend meal duration (and the amount of time you're in front of those honey-glazed pork chops), thereby increasing consumption. But because kids will be kids, while this "social facilitation" phenomenon has the same stimulating effect in larger groups of kids, the researchers also found that children in larger groups ate more rapidly, socialized less, and ate at a slightly faster rate than they did in smaller groups.

Kids who already overeat might fare better chowing down with family and friends at home, rather than at a busy restaurant, where the chaotic environment might stimulate them to gobble down even more then necessary to feel satiated.

Photo Credit: Jo Sax/Getty Images

Tags: Urban Planning

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