News article

Neighborhoods With Healthy Food Options Less Likely To Have Overweight Kids

Posted:  Wednesday, July 09, 2014

In neighborhoods with no supermarket, families rely on corner stores to buy food. Problem is, corner stores specialize in selling packaged, highly processed products — and kids shop at them often. New studies children with a greater number of healthy food outlets near their homes had a reduced likelihood of being overweight or obese.

Children who had access to at least one healthy food outlet within half of their home had a 38 percent decreased risk of being overweight or obese compared to those who did not. Each additional outlet for healthy foods within that distance was associated with a 19 percent reduction in risk of being overweight or obese.

"Few previous studies have considered the likely reduction in risk of childhood overweight or obesity associated with proximity to healthy food outlets," said lead author Laura Miller, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the Public Health and Clinical Services Division for the state of Western Australia.

Studies find that residents with greater access to supermarkets or a greater abundance of healthy foods in neighbourhood food stores consume more fresh produce and other healthful items.

The findings are based on data collected from 1850 children ages 5 to 15 in the city of Perth in Western Australia and their neighbourhood food outlets. The study controlled for age, physical activity, time spent sedentary, the number of take-out meals per week, and the socioeconomic status of the neighbourhood. Food outlets in Western Australia must be registered with local government authorities and were geographically coded by location and types of food sold. In addition to familiar chains such as McDonalds, Chinese, Thai, and Indian take-out restaurants, fish-and-chips shops, burger joints, and pizzerias were all coded as fast food outlets. Supermarkets, fruit and vegetable shops, and butchers were coded as healthy food outlets.

"We chose our definition of 'fast food' based on previous studies which included both multinational and independent fast food outlets, and the assumption that people eating at these outlets have limited control over the ingredients and portion sizes provided," Miller explained. Supermarkets, general stores, fruit and vegetable stores, and butchers provide more healthy food options, and also allow for control over ingredients and portion size, she said.

Lack of access to healthy foods can have adverse effects on individuals’ health. A diet poor in fruits and vegetables increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other illnesses that disproportionately affect people of color. Poor dietary behaviors also contribute to the obesity epidemic, which is increasing at an alarming rate nationwide.

"This study provides a sense of the associations between neighbourhood food stores and restaurants relative to self-reported height and weight in Australian children," said Penny Gordon-Larsen, Ph.D., Professor of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Fellow of The Obesity Society. "The work confirms findings from several studies in other locations, such as the U.S., Europe, and Canada, among other countries. It is important to note that the literature in this area is quite mixed, likely because of the complexity of the association between neighbourhood food stores, diet, and body weight."