Expert Commentary

Fast food restaurants, food stores and health

2011 study in Archives of Internal Medicine on links between proximity to certain types of foods and health outcomes.

With obesity on the rise across America, particularly among lower-income individuals, it has been suggested that part of the problem may be lack of access to healthy foods. Many low-income housing areas are inundated with fast food restaurants and often lack a regular supermarket that offers fresh fruits and vegetables. The term “food deserts” is increasingly used to characterize such areas, but it is not clear if this oversimplifies the problem of obesity for certain communities.

A 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, “Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores,” used 15 years of data on more than 5,000 survey participants to examine the relationship between access to food resources (i.e., what food is available near homes) among young adults 18 to 30 years old and consumption patterns.

The study’s findings include:

  • Higher levels of fast food consumption were strongly correlated to fast food availability, particularly among low-income men with fast food restaurants within 1 to 2.99 km of their homes. A 1% increase in fast food availability within 1 km and 3 km of the home was associated with a 0.13% and 0.34% increase in fast food consumption, respectively.
  • Greater proximity to supermarkets was not correlated in any consistent fashion with diet outcomes, nor was it associated with fruit and vegetable intake levels.
  • There were no consistent or strong correlations between neighborhood fast food availability and individual consumption of fast food for women of any income level.
  • On average, men of all income levels consumed fast food 2.1 times a week, while their female counterparts consumed such food only 1.6 times.

The study’s authors conclude that by “promoting greater access to supermarkets, several U.S. policies aim to improve diets through provision of affordable healthy foods, particularly fresh produce in underserved areas. Our findings do not support this initiative in young to middle-aged adults. Rather, they suggest that adding neighborhood supermarkets may have little benefit to diet quality across the income spectrum and that alternative policy options such as targeting specific foods or shifting food costs (subsidization or taxation) should be further considered.”

Tags: nutrition, race, poverty

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