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The Obesity Battle: Fast Food Vs. Supermarkets

Two studies come to conflicting conclusions about the social changes needed to reverse the obesity epidemic.

Two McDonalds Signs, a Burget King sign, and a sign for Premier West hotels rise out of a cluster of tall trees in an area that looks rural.

Photo: heacphotos (flickr)

In many rural areas, fast food is much more readily available than healthy supermarket options.

You Say Tomato…

In the past two years, two major studies have assessed the factors that inspire people to eat healthy foods — and they have come too opposite conclusions.

The first, published by Policy Link and the Food Trust in March 2010, made a strong claim that Americans, given access to healthy foods, will choose to substantially increase their intake of fruits and vegetables.

The second, published in July 2011 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, finds that income and the availability of fast food have a large influence on people’s eating habits. Access to supermarkets, in contrast, does very little.

In One Corner: PolicyLink and the Food Trust

The 2010 report is based on an agglomeration of information gathered from 132 studies published over the past twenty years. Sixty-one of these studies were published in peer-reviewed journals and conducted by university-affiliated academics. Seventy-one were conducted by practitioners or policy researchers.

Among many interesting statistics, the study revealed that when supermarkets open in areas that had not had one previously, most residents of that area would increase their fruit and vegetable consumption. African American families increased their produce intake by thirty-two percent, while Caucasian families increased their produce intake by eleven percent.

In Earth Eats’ home state of Indiana, researchers estimate that every grocery store added to a high-poverty area of Indianapolis would result in three pounds of weight loss per person. The elimination of fast-food options from fast-food-dense areas would result in one pound of weight lost per person.

In The Other Corner: The University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill

The lead investigator on this study was Barry Popkin, director of the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

It tracked the dietary habits of more than 5,000 Caucasian and African American people from 1985 to 2000, evaluating food choices, income, and proximity to different food sources.

The problem, Popkin says, is that supermarkets are full of choices that are every bit as fattening as fast food — and those are often the cheapest options, too.

Supermarkets in poorer areas often offer fewer healthy options — which is probably not coincidental.

Bringing In The Good, Taking Out The Bad

These two reports make opposite points regarding what needs to be done to encourage people to make healthier eating choices.

The first argues that Americans will make healthier food choices as long as they have access to the resources they need, such as supermarkets or good-quality grocery stores.

The second argues that access alone is not enough. People need to have both the money to afford healthier foods and active discouragement not to choose less-healthy options that may be more convenient.

Attitude Is Everything

But projects to build new supermarkets are beginning to be successful, spearheaded in part by organizations like the Food Trust — much more successful than projects to restrict the expansion of fast-food chains.

In Philadelphia in particular, the Food Trust has made great strides in opening farmers’ markets and improving the food options available at corner stores.

Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of Community Health Councils, says that while the results of the UNC study are discouraging, they don’t change the fact that communities with supermarkets at least have access to healthy foods, while those without often do not.

Gwen Flynn director of community health and education at Community Health Councils in Los Angeles, asserts resolving the obesity epidemic requires more than just creating opportunities for people to make better choices.

What it requires, she says, is “a comprehensive plan to change what people are eating.”

Read More:

  • The Grocery Gap (The Atlantic)
  • Access To Grocers Doesn’t Improve Diets, Study Finds (LA Times)
  • The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access To Healthy Foods And Why It Matters (PolicyLink)
Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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  • Steven Johnson

    Stamps should be accepted at restaurants.

    the intersection of contemporary consumer meal consumption trends and the
    confluence of the time starved consumer is the grocerant niche filled with
    fresh ready-2-eat and heat-N-eat prepared food. 
    Driven by consumer demand these items can be found in Grocery Stores,
    Chain & Independent Restaurants, Convenience Stores, Chain Drug Stores and
    increasing at food trucks and online food portals.

    time to allow Americans receiving food assistance to purchase fresh and
    prepared ready-2-eat and heat-N-eat food from Grocery Stores, Chain &
    Independent Restaurants, Convenience Stores, Chain Drug Stores and the like.

    stagnation or double dip, 45 million plus Americans are currently receiving
    assistance from the Food and Nutrition Service division of the U.S. Department
    of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program.  Like most legacy government programs its time
    to up date this program ensuring participant parity and a contemporized

    the US unemployment rate is roughly 9.2% it is estimated that combined with the
    underemployed and those not even looking any longer the rate is 14.7% it’s
    clear a large portion of America is going without. Unemployment numbers are
    disproportionately high for those under 24 and over 55 increasing anxiety while
    creating a climate of disorder in the workforce. O

    The time has come to
    allow food stamp usage at restaurants.

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