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Study: fresh fruits and vegetables combat childhood obesity

Juan sells fresh produce in the Bronx - ©Hilary Brueck/ Uptown Radio

Juan sells fresh produce in the Bronx – ©Hilary Brueck

HOST INTRO: Fresh fruits and vegetables may be part of the solution to America’s childhood obesity problem, a new study finds. Hilary Brueck has the story.

According to the study in the journal Pediatrics, places with a lot of obese kids need more people like Juan.

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JUAN “One dollar strawberry, one dollar!”

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Some of the fruits and vegetables he sells out of his van at the corner of 161st and Grand Concourse in the Bronx are cheaper than the supermarket down the block. The study found areas with cheaper fruits and vegetables have fewer obese kids.

Taryn Morrissey the lead author of the Pediatrics study and a developmental psychologist at American University in Washington D.C says the logic of cheap produce is simple.

MORRISSEY: “By lowering the price, you’re increasing the probability that somebody might buy those foods.”

Morrissey and her colleagues tracked a representative sample of kids across the country from infancy to age five. They compared children’s heights and weights to fruit and vegetable prices in their neighborhoods. What they found was wherever prices were high, obesity rates were too.

People who eat more fruits and vegetables tend not to be obese because the foods have what nutritionists call “low energy density”. You can eat a lot of them, without consuming too many calories because they have a lot of water and fiber in them- so they fill you up.

The study found that low-energy density foods tend to be more expensive where lower-income people live. Morrissey says that makes it difficult for them to make healthy choices.

MORRISSEY: “There is evidence families purchase more energy-dense poorer-quality foods instead of fruits and vegetables. These low-quality foods cost less per calorie, by not by weight or average portion.”

That is the kind of food you can find at a lot of dollar stores. Keisha shops at one in East Harlem called “Deals.” She didn’t want to give her last name, but she said she comes here to do her grocery shopping, instead of the supermarket. She’s picking out canned oysters, soup and tuna. She says there’s one reason she shops here: prices.


KEISHA: “a dollar, two dollars, where as in the supermarket it’s 3, 4, 5, dollars for the same thing. I want to save a dollar, so I come here.”


But the freezer aisle at Deals is filled with high energy density foods: frozen waffles, microwaveable hamburgers and frozen pizzas. Those are the foods that look like good meals to a low-income person. That’s what Mahshid Dehghan, a nutritionist at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario says.

DEHGHAN: “When you want to choose between a meal and fruits and vegetables, you choose meal.”

Taryn Morrissey of American University agrees it’s hard to convince people who may only have a few dollars in their pockets to spend them on fruits and vegetables. Even when they aren’t expensive.

MORRISSEY: “If you’re operating on a really tight budget, you still might purchase lower-quality food just because you’re operating on really tight constraints.”

There may be a glimmer of hope for America’s obesity rates. The Centers for Disease Control reported last week that national obesity rates held steady for the first time ever, and rates for 2 to 5 year-olds dropped by more than forty percent over the past decade.

Hilary Brueck, Columbia Radio News.

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