Easy Access Doesn't Always Equal Better Food Choices


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  29 comments   :  14,767 Views

Does having easy access to supermarkets affect people's food choices?  You'd think that if you have good access to things like fruits and vegetables, you're less likely to go for fast-food or other convenience items that have a long shelf life.  But a new study says that income and proximity to fast food restaurants actually matter more than proximity to supermarkets in the battle against obesity.

The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, looked at the diets of over 5,000 men and women in big U.S. cities over a 15-year period.   "The researchers found that living near fast-food restaurants was associated with a greater consumption of fast food, especially, in this case, among low-income men. But the scientists also found that easy access to supermarkets was not linked to a greater consumption of healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats and whole grains." 

Other studies have found similar results- living close to a supermarket doesn't mean you eat more fruits and vegetables.  Why not?  Well, when you enter a supermarket, you still have to make choices about what to purchase.  It's easy to assume people will choose healthy foods if they have access to them. But if you're surrounded by unhealthy, cheaper, pre-packaged foods when you walk in the door, that might end up being what fills your cart. 

Many stress that a comprehensive plan of education is what's needed.  It's not just about moving fast-food restaurants away from people or adding more fruits and vegetables to the front of the supermarket.  What's important is educating people about how to make healthy choices, while at the same time making those choices more affordable, especially in low-income areas.  It's also important that people of all income levels have access to a wide variety of healthy foods.  I know where I live, the selection at grocery stores varies widely depending on where you go. 

Solutions could involve government or private subsidies for healthy foods, community outreach, and more.  If you can't afford to buy produce at the store, why not try growing your own?  I've recently discovered that growing some of my own veggies is not only cost-effective, it's easy.    

What do you think?  Do you have other suggestions for how to deal with this issue?

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    Something I notice when I was on a trip in Germany. They seem to walk everywhere and have these awesome outdoor mini markets. So while you are browsing the landscape you can pick up some fresh strawberries or whatever fresh fruit available. You can instantly nibble on it and keep your day going forward. Here we hold off until we get over hungry and in the car. So the smell of fast-food endrenches our nostrils and gets our tasty buds wanting. Although apples are healthy and with a lot less packaging, it just might be the bling of the hamburger paper; the crunchy sound of the paper rustling as we open it. It all seem to take us over. Whereas the apples gives us healier choice and even the apple core is good for the birdies as they help us recycle. - 4/3/2012   10:56:10 AM
  • 28
    I do not understand why the government has to be involved. Each individual needs to start taking care of themselves. The individual needs to be asking questions, making their own decisions and leading by example. The individual needs to be strengthened, educated to make the right healthy food choices for themselves and their families. It just does not work if someone else makes their choices for them. Sparks is an excellent resource. If non-profits want to take on the challenge - Great!!! - 11/15/2011   9:53:30 AM
  • 27
    When I was a "starving student", I did my best to eat healthy. I avoided those ramen noodles and "yellow death". Instead, I focused on beans, inexpensive proteins (chicken drumsticks were a staple), and my regular produce staples were lettuce, carrots, apples and bananas. I also did not have a car and was quite a distance from the supermarket. Needless to say, that was probably the thinnest I had ever been in my life. Now that I have a career, salary and a car, I'm finding it a struggle to lose weight. Maybe it's not just our metabolisms that need improvement as we age...maybe we need to avoid the luxuries that we've grown accustomed to as we've grown up. Our wallets (and waistlines) will thank us! - 7/28/2011   10:17:51 AM
  • 26
    I think the most important thing is for folks to be prepared to make the healthy food choices. We all have choices in everything we do. I heard an interesting radio show yesterday that spoke to the fact that we have the choice as to what we put into our mouth - only us, no one forces us ;) So having access to healthy food is vital we still have to make the decision not only to purchase but to eat it - 7/28/2011   9:52:40 AM
    The easy factor of growing your own vegetables depends on where you live. It's proven impossible on the high desert. I drive 30 miles one way to buy organic veggies. Overall, I think motivation is the driving force in choosing your food. I could drive that 30 miles, hit the drive through and the supermarket and buy a bunch of junk, but I choose to spend the bulk of my food budget at a natural foods store. When I travel, I try and shop at the larger natural food stores on my way home as their prices are so much cheaper. My cooler is always with me. - 7/28/2011   12:26:02 AM
    I think that the biggest factor that makes people chose fast food is TIME. Most people know that a bag of carrots is better for them than french fries. People KNOW that a grilled chicken breast is healthier than a hamburger. But when one is too busy working, the last thing that they want to do is do prep work, cook, and then clean up afterwards. Society keeps screaming that we need more education, but c'mon, people KNOW that they eat crappily when they go to McDonald's. I think a great thing would be for more education in HOW to cook. For example, a crock pot has saved me SO much in terms of time and lets me make healthy meals. But if it wasn't for my mom, I would've never know how to use one! I grew up learning how to cook in high school, but with cutbacks, it seems home economics classes have gone the way of gym classes. Teaching kids how to cook healthy meals, especially in poor areas, would really help. - 7/27/2011   1:01:51 PM
  • 23
    All good points. Farmer's markets are a great way to get top produce at reasonable prices. I have noticed that cutting out most processed foods cuts my grocery bill significantly, and I can now afford to choose organic foods.

    I occasionally buy produce at Costco, and find the quality is quite good, as the quality of their fresh meats and fresh and frozen seafood. They have begun introducing organic choices, which is even better. - 7/27/2011   12:39:35 PM
  • 22
    I think we have to shop smart not having to always go to discounts.
    Discount stores often have low grade fruit and vegetables. They don't last as long. When you shop smart, plan meals around shopping then chances are better for better food choices and potential better food. For everyone! Thanks for sharing - 7/27/2011   12:12:33 PM
  • 21
    The problem that fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains have is advertising. When was the last time that you saw an ad for tomatoes or green beans? Sesame Street may have segments on their show (I don't have kids, so I don't watch it), but there isn't any during prime time, compare that to fast food, candy, soda. If healthy foods had the same backing on TV and radio that Big Macs and Snickers had, more people would think about buying them.
    - 7/27/2011   12:01:37 PM
  • 20
    I grew up poor and my parents had unhealthy eating habits. By the time I was an adult, I knew *what* I should be eating, but I didn't know *how*. I didn't know how to buy, store or cook most healthy foods. I'm now 35 and finally learning! (slowly) I think if people knew more about how to eat healthy (including that it can be both simple and cheap!) they would be more inclined. When you're raised on Hamburger Helper and Macaroni & Cheese and canned vegetables, then idea of cooking really food from scratch is quite daunting! - 7/27/2011   11:54:19 AM
    I think income makes a big difference today. The cost of milk, vegetables, fruit, herbs and chicken have risen while at the same time quality has gone down. This most likely has to do with the weather conditions world wide. When it comes to money, If I have $1.89, I try to say that large Hershey bar costs $1.89 so why not buy the red pepper. That is not how I use to feel before deciding to get healthy and fit. Herbs are the worse because you hate to spend the money and not be able to use it before it spoils. - 7/27/2011   11:49:11 AM
  • 18
    Since fast food is a fact of life for some folks, more healthy fast food options would be a plus! Also, education on portion sizes and somehow moving away from "super sizing". - 7/27/2011   11:46:58 AM
  • 17
    While research may say something different, it all comes down to choice (vs. proximity). Budgetary constraints can have also an impact, as can one's knowledge about nutrition. The biggest factor, though, remains choice. - 7/27/2011   10:50:13 AM
  • 16
    If you shop and do discount, and are not exactly of the spa-cuisine set (and I am NOT ashamed of that ... "the poor have always been with us", as the saying goes—though me, of necessity), you have discount grocery stores like ALDI pretty accessible, sometimes [and, of course, stores like Target and the warehouse stores] ... the offerings in the produce department are reasonably priced but of not-great quality; spoiling even faster than they have to. They also assault you with the panoply of processed foods, mostly proprietary brand and overstock foods, all throughout the store (there is no traditional "for nutrition-friendly shopping, shop at the periphery" layout). That puts me between a rock and a hard place ... - 7/27/2011   10:27:35 AM
    While the statement is fairly accurate, imho there are also TRAPS to be found in supermarkets ESPECIALLY in the prepared foods that are sold for convenience of the shopper when it comes to meal preparation. You don't know if the nutritional values are in the foods you are purchasing. - 7/27/2011   10:23:23 AM
  • LQUEST4754

    In addition to the access problem, we have been conditioned by years of advertising, etc to believe that it is too difficult to cook from scratch. There ARE good buys of basic foods out there. We THINK we don't have time to cook and that we need over processed foods that thave been transported for long distances.

    I've learned that most anything can be made from scratch for less than over processed junk. - 7/27/2011   10:21:36 AM
    Two experiences to relate:
    1) Lived in Portland, OR for a bit in an apartment across the street from a supermarket. We used to walk over there almost daily to buy fresh veggies and fruit (straight up the highway from CA), although the rest of the choices in the store WERE somewhat limited. There were plenty of fast food places all along the street too, but that market was great. We ate great healthy homemade meals 99% of the time.

    2) We now live in northern NJ near several good supermarkets that all have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to selection and price. There are lots of fast food places here too. But, what I find interesting is that the local Walmart, which sells some food, never stocks any lo-fat, lo-cal versions of items (except milk) - only full fat, total calorie choices, so I don't buy much there. We still try to eat as many fresh veggies and fruit as possible, but price has become a big issue.

    Bottom line is that, yes, if fast food places are more easily accessible, people will tend to eat that food more frequently, and no, we don't need the government to get involved in yet another area of our lives. As far as growing your own, I'm all for it. Look at Detroit, which is turning into small plot, inner city farms. Every community should have some land set aside for people to grow their own food.

    - 7/27/2011   10:02:25 AM
  • 12
    I can see the point. I live about 20 miles from a decent grocery store that i don't pay out out my ears for, so i only go once a week. Well most produce doesn't last but a couple days, so things like fruit that are difficult to find decent frozen products, i have to do without. i need a walmart closer. - 7/27/2011   2:06:49 AM
  • 11
    I can walk to the grocery store or a fast food place - it seems like a wasted walk if I eat fast food....walking helps me eat better - maybe its just me.... - 7/27/2011   12:24:19 AM
  • 10
    I shop at a food co-op, nothing flashy, tempting or unhealthy to tempt me. The candy is all organic/fair trade/4 dollar a bar. Unless bulk beans and falafel mix are trigger foods, it's the way to go. - 7/26/2011   11:18:36 PM
    I live in town so I'm minutes away from both fresh food and lots of choices of fast food. But being in a low income state myself plus being a student full time plus being single makes it really difficult to go to the grocery store. Stocking up on as much food that I need for a week could be half of my paycheck (weekly) or more and I can't afford to spend that much in one trip. I can definitely see why I turn to fast food. It seems like I'm saving money and it's convenient. I've recently tried to buy maybe $50 worth of food one week and see how it lasts then buy another $50 worth the next to try and even things out. - 7/26/2011   11:02:51 PM
  • 8
    fresh vegetables have gotten so high that I am only buying frozen, except broccoli. when they are on sale, like right now at Giant for $.99 a bag. I really stock up. - 7/26/2011   10:30:00 PM
  • 7
    I think most Americans actually do know that they should be buying the fruits and veggies, the lean meats, low-fat dairy. I don't think its so much that they need to be educated about it. It takes truly wanting to be healthy more than you want the junk food. Now of course, there are other issues. Deceitful labeling making unhealthy things seem healthy. That could be addressed through education. Also the fact that junk is often so much cheaper. I still don't understand why whole grain bread (which takes less processing, therefore less work...) is so much more expensive than white. Why can I buy a box of donuts on the day-old rack for $2 and yet have to pay $4 or $5 for a small bag of grapes??? Its not hard to see that for a family with a low income, they have to REALLY want the healthy food in order spend the money on it. - 7/26/2011   10:12:52 PM
  • 6
    Having financial difficulties for the past few months has helped me to see this problem from another perspective. In the past I've made bad choices because I did not know just how bad processed food really was or the enormous amount of calories in fast food. I also did not have easy access to a supermarket with fresh fruit and veggies. But even with what I know now, when times got hard I went back to what I used to know minus the fast food. I had not learned how to do the healthy eating thing on an extremely tight almost non existent budget. The other thing about income affecting your diet is; financial problems are stressful and to be honest, a bowl of ice cream feels good. Emotional eating for low income people may be much higher than we think. - 7/26/2011   9:44:47 PM
  • 5
    Having a market with "good" produce nearby is helpful. The food has to look good. I am lucky that there is a Whole Foods (aka whole paycheck) near me, and that they do have specials and 'free tastes' of the some of the produce. It gives me an opportunity to try something other than apples, oranges, and bananas. - 7/26/2011   9:01:10 PM
  • 4
    I would love to see a study assessing these things if you live in close proximity to a farmer's market! - 7/26/2011   8:15:40 PM
  • 3
    It depends on where you live. Where I live right now, in Seattle, I have several reasonably priced grocery stores within walking distance. However, that is one of the factors I considered when choosing where to live. There are a lot of areas that don't have grocery stores. When I went to graduate school in Youngstown Ohio there wasn't a grocery store within walking distance of my apartment or anywhere in the downtown area. I had to walk about a mile to get to a bus that I then rode for about half an hour. I always wondered how many people there didn't have ANY access to fresh food. - 7/26/2011   7:58:43 PM
  • 2
    I agree that is all comes down to income and choices instead of proximity to supermarkets. - 7/26/2011   7:25:53 PM
  • 1
    I always feel as if there's a certain amount of "market failure" when it comes to foods that are bad for us -- we don't pay for what they actually cost in terms of health problems down the line. Because we have socialized medicine in Canada, there are certain things (cigarettes, alcohol) that are taxed to reflect how much they actually cost the health system in terms of chronic and acute illnesses down the line. Something tells me that if we did the same thing with transfats, sugar, and sodium, fresh produce would look a lot more affordable all of a sudden! - 7/26/2011   3:48:46 PM

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