Are Your Neighborhood Food Options Harming Your Health?

drive thru foodA report in the July 11 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine found that having fast food restaurants in one’s neighborhood has an impact on consumption of fast food. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study, from its baseline in 1985 until 2001.

According to an article published by ScienceDaily, the study was made up of 5,115 participants from Birmingham, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Oakland. They answered questions about how often they ate fast food, and described their diet during the previous month, in addition to their normal eating habits. The researchers looked at fast food consumption, diet quality and how well people followed the guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption as a function of fast food chain, supermarket or grocery store options within distances of less than one kilometer to more than eight kilometers from the participants’ homes.

One of the key findings of the report was that for lower income participants, there was a connection between distance to fast food restaurants from home and consumption at such restaurants, especially for men who lived within 3 kilometers of a fast food restaurant. They did not find a significant relationship between supermarkets and diet quality or fruits and vegetables consumption. The availability of grocery stores had a mixed relationship with eating habits.

Dr. Daniel Davis, expert bariatric surgeon at Stamford Hospital Center for Surgical Weight Loss spoke with us about the results of the report. He told us that “not surprisingly, the investigators found a significant association between consumption of fast food and proximity to one’s home, particularly in men with lower income levels. Neighborhoods with an abundance of fast food restaurants compared with grocery stores have been called, “food deserts”, due to the relative paucity of availability of healthy food. Since fast food restaurants typically sell high-calorie, high-fat foods, this study highlights how our environment is a potentially modifiable risk factor for obesity.”

As Dr. Davis mentioned, neighborhoods in which there are limited options for healthy food have been termed “food deserts”. The government has prioritized reducing these areas. Implicit in the their initiatives is the idea that reducing proximity to fast food and increasing access to supermarkets will lead to improvements in diet and subsequently, health. The study authors caution that categorizing stores and restaurants as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ simply based on their mode of service or size may provide little understanding on how environment impacts diet and in doing so, innovative policy solutions may be overlooked. Rather, the authors suggest further research on how neighborhood food environments affect diet and consumption habits.

You can read the summary of the USDA’s 2009 report focusing on ‘food deserts’ here.

Comments are closed.