Placing healthier foods for sale nearer people’s home is a useful step towards making America a healthier nation, but the impact on overall eating habits, and ultimately the country’s obesity epidemic, is not significant. A multi-faceted approach, including promotion, education, incentives, access to nearby sports facilities is required, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote in Archives of Internal Medicine.

The authors found that having grocery stores and bigger supermarkets nearby did not considerably alter people’s eating habits. However, having fast food restaurants in one’s neighborhood appeared to increase fast food consumption among lower-income men. Penny Gordon-Larsen, Ph.D., added that their findings were mixed across other groups.

Gordon-Larsen said:

“Our study did not examine the quality of foods offered or the purchasing patterns at fast food restaurants, supermarkets and grocery stores. We only examined the availability of fast food restaurants, supermarkets and smaller grocery stores. What we can conclude, though, is that simply introducing a supermarket in a neighborhood may not be enough the new store should be accompanied with multifaceted efforts, such as promotion, education and incentives for healthier options.”

The researchers explained that the US government is seriously attempting to reduce “food deserts” – a term that refers to neighborhoods where it is hard to find healthy food.

The authors wrote:

“Such policies stem from limited evidence that food resources are related to obesity and are inequitably allocated according to neighborhood wealth. Implicit in these policy initiatives is that reduced access to fast food and increased access to supermarkets will translate into improvements in diet behavior and health.”

Janne Boone-Heinonen, Ph.D., and team set out to determine whether this assumption was true. They gathered data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development Adults Study, which spanned from its baseline in 1985 up to 2001. They tried to correlate eating habits, such as diet quality, how closely people adhered to fruit and veggie consumption guidelines, and fast food consumption to the availability of grocery stores, supermarkets and fast food outlets within under 1 kilometer, to 1 kilometer, and to over 8 kilometers from people’s homes.

The 5,115 volunteers were aged between 18 and 30 in 1985 and lived in Oakland (Calif.), Birmingham (Ala.), Chicago and Minneapolis. They self-reported their fast food consumption frequency, as well as providing a detailed account of their food consumption during the previous four weeks. They were also asked about their usual dietary habits.

Participants on lower incomes were found to consume more fast foods if fast food outlets were near their homes. The link was especially close among men who had fast food outlets between 1 and 3 kilometers from their homes.

They did not find a significant link between large supermarket availability and the consumption of fruit and vegetables. Grocery store availability influenced eating habits slightly in some areas but not in others.

Gordon-Larsen said:

“Our findings suggest that no single approach, such as just having access to fresh fruits and veggies, might be effective in changing the way people eat. We really need to look at numerous ways of changing diet behaviors. There are likely more effective ways to influence what people eat.

For example, classifying foods as healthy or unhealthy depending on whether they are served as fast food or in a sit-down restaurant may not paint the whole picture. Maybe we need to be looking more closely at what they are ordering and the prices they pay for healthy versus less healthy foods. It is very clear that we need to find ways to improve diets, particularly of low income individuals. Simply putting in extra supermarkets per se may not solve the current health inequities. More research is needed.”

“Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores – Longitudinal Associations With Diet in Young to Middle-aged Adults: The CARDIA Study”
Janne Boone-Heinonen, PhD; Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD; Catarina I. Kiefe, MD, PhD; James M. Shikany, DrPH; Cora E. Lewis, MD; Barry M. Popkin, PhD
Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(13):1162-1170. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.283

Written by Christian Nordqvist