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The Geography of Obesity

May 23, 2013

food-desert-1A study published recently the American Journal of Public Health added new fuel to the debate over the connection between food deserts and obesity. The report, developed by researchers at the University of Texas, found that for every mile participants lived from the closest fast-food restaurant, their body mass index decreased by 2.4 percent. That is, the further someone lived from a fast-food restaurant, the skinnier they were likely to be.

According to the researchers, this effect held true in both lower and higher income levels. Previous studies have found a similar relationship regardless of race. Lorraine Reitzel, the study’s lead author, commented that,

There’s something about living close to a fast food restaurant that’s associated with a higher BMI.”   She said that there may be some behavioral economics involved in the decision to choose fast food over a healthier choice. “Fast food is specifically designed to be affordable, appealing and convenient. People are pressed for time, and they behave in such a way that will cost them the least amount of time to get things done, and this may extend to their food choices.

Previous research has suggested other connections, including genetic and economic factors.

We know that the rise of food deserts is a concern in both rural and urban communities. Access to fresh food in food deserts can be difficult, as individuals are distanced from food both physically (in the sense that there are no grocers), financially (in the sense that junk food is cheaper than fresh food), and mentally (in the sense that individuals may not understand food choices or know how to prepare fresh food).

Reitzel’s recent study paints a complicated picture in which the three dimensions of food access overlap and are reinforced. It also suggests that the overcoming the challenges posed by food deserts is not a simple matter of building more grocers but of changing individual and social behaviors.

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