Having easy access to a fresh food market or a fast food outlet may not have as much impact on obesity as previously thought.
At least, that’s the finding of a study out of Indiana University that looked at the association between neighborhood environments and weight.
The researchers used data from the Weight and Veterans’ Environments Study that covered 1.7 million veterans in 382 metropolitan areas between 2009 and 2014.
They calculated the number of fast food restaurants, supermarkets, and other food outlets within one and three miles of a veteran’s residence.
Along with information about the veterans gathered at doctor’s visits, the researchers were then able to track changes to a veteran’s body mass index (BMI). They also tracked when a veteran moved closer or farther away from a fast food outlet or supermarket.
Researchers found no evidence to suggest that availability of fast food restaurants or supermarkets — or the opening or closure of such stores near a person’s home — had an influence on BMI.
“We find that on average people don’t seem to gain or lose much weight after these kinds of changes in the neighborhood food environment,” Coady Wing, PhD, an assistant professor in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, told Healthline. Wing was a researcher involved in the study.
Study contradicts previous findings
The findings are in stark contrast to previous studies that suggest living in a “food desert” with little access to healthy or fresh food has an impact on a person’s weight.
“If losing a supermarket in a particular geographical area is close to what people mean by a food desert, then at least with respect to weight-related health, our study does suggest that food deserts are not as worrisome as previously thought,” Wing said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost 30 million people in the United States live in communities where it is difficult to find affordable healthy food. These areas — known as food deserts — are commonly found in low-income areas.
“When compared with higher-income areas, lower-income communities have fewer supermarkets and other retail outlets that provide a wide selection of affordable, nutritious foods. Instead, they are typically dominated by convenience stores and fast food restaurants,” Yael Lehmann, executive director of the Food Trust, told Healthline.
“While low-income neighborhoods may have some small markets that are classified as grocery stores, they stock mostly snacks, and the fresh food on their shelves is low quality and expensive,” Lehmann added. “For folks without a lot of time or money, it’s easier to find a grape soda than a bunch of grapes.”
Wing concedes that the study may not be indicative of habits determined by wealth.
“Our study was not able to examine the effects of the food environment using individual measures of socioeconomic status or transportation capacity,” he said. “It’s possible that the local food environment might matter more, for example, among people who don’t own a car. Our study does not shed light on that sort of possibility.”
How environment can affect weight gain
So does living down the street from the golden arches of McDonald’s make you more likely to indulge in unhealthy foods?
According to Dawn Eichen, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Diego Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research, it’s entirely possible.
“A lot of our eating is influenced by cues in the environment,” she told Healthline. “Our body becomes conditioned to respond to these cues. So just seeing the sign can lead to our bodies salivating. Sights, sounds, smells can all impact our cravings for these foods. And having to walk by or drive by the same tempting food each day… will be difficult to resist every single time.”
Addressing healthy food access and curbing the obesity epidemic in America may not be as simple as building more grocery stores, however.
A 2014 study examined the impact of opening a new grocery store in a Philadelphia community considered to be a “food desert.” Although awareness of food access increased once the store opened, it did not lead to changes to BMI or change the rate of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables among participants.
“While a new store may be ‘accessible,’ we are not telling or promoting to participants what food choices they should be making. We each have favorite foods, preferences, and desires for specific foods and even specific stores — either through habit or because we like their preferred shopper cards and discounts, i.e., loyalty and repeat behavior. We have had these preferences for foods and stores before the new store was built and after,” Stephen A. Matthews, PhD, associate professor in the Departments of Sociology, Anthropology, and Demography at Penn State University and co-author of the 2014 study told Healthline.
Individual approach urged
More than two-thirds of American adults are considered to be overweight or obese.
Eichen argues curbing the obesity epidemic will require an individualized approach and will need to address more factors than just food access.
“For people to maintain healthy weight, it’s important to have access to fruits and vegetables. However, having access to these foods does not necessarily mean that people will eat them,” she said.
“We need to work as a society to help enact changes to make it easier on everyone to make healthy choices,” she added. “This can include information and guidelines across the lifespan. There are going to need to be a lot of individualized approaches to help each person succeed in their environment.”