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Steve Griffin, Deseret News
A hazy view of the Salt Lake Valley from the upper Avenues in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Your teenager's junk food diet that is helping to put on the pounds may not simply be the result of convenience but early exposure to traffic pollution.

That's according to a recent University of Southern California study that suggests air pollution during early childhood results in adolescents who are 34 percent more likely to consume foods high in unhealthy trans fats.

Researchers say that link exists regardless of household income, proximity to fast food outlets or parental education levels.

The study tracked 3,100 teenagers who were part of the university's Children's Health Study during 1993-94 and who were followed for four to eight years.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News
A hazy view of the Salt Lake Valley from the upper Avenues in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.

Hailed as one of the largest and most detailed probes of lasting impacts from air pollution exposure, the study's dietary component involved a yearly questionnaire surveying how frequently certain foods were eaten and how often they ate dinner out.

Zhanghua Chen, a postdoctoral research associate in the university's department of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, admitted the findings are curious.

"Strange as it may seem, we discovered kids in polluted communities ate more fast food than other kids," Chen said.

The findings were published in late December in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and while somewhat novel, they illuminate previous research.

A 2012 study, researchers noted, showed mice exposed in-utero to diesel exhaust consumed 14 percent more calories than the offspring of pregnant mice exposed to filtered areas.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News
A hazy view of the Salt Lake Valley from the upper Avenues in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.

While researchers are unsure of what is driving the connection, they did note that among the mice, the prenatal exhaust exposure was accompanied by changes in the part of the brain governing food-seeking behavior.

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Chen said researchers plan to build on these latest results to investigate the role air pollution exposure plays in brain function.

Obesity impacts nearly 14 million children in the United States — 1 in every 5 children or adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Utah Department of Health officials say there has been a 200 percent increase in the number of U.S. children with obesity ages 2-17 in the last 38 years.

About 9.6 percent of Utah public high school students were obese as of 2017, according to the state agency, compared to the national average of 14.8 percent.