Researchers discover that much like real estate, where location matters, the need to have healthy food a short distance away makes a difference in staying on a diet and losing weight.
University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health researchers found that not having close access to healthy foods can deter even the most motivated dieters from improving their diets.
This finding suggests that easy access to healthy food is as important as personal motivation and professional guidance from health care providers.
“Community health programs should be evidence based, but many studies have showed conflicting associations between the distance to grocery stores and lower or higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes,” said principal investigator Wenjun Li, Ph.D., senior author of the study.
“Our study is different. It looks at whether neighborhood environment becomes a limiting factor when a person wants to improve their diet.
“If you live far away from a grocery store, and you are trying to change your diet, will that affect you or not? To our knowledge, this is the first study to look at that,” said Dr. Li.
Researchers conducted a randomized clinical trial on 240 obese adults living in Worcester County.
Each adult was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome — meaning they were at elevated risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
Investigators compared two dietary interventions, the American Heart Association Dietary Guidelines or an exclusive focus on increasing fiber intake.
The study has been published online by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Li observed that even though the participants were highly motivated to make lifestyle changes, those who traveled a shorter distance from home to the nearest food store with adequate healthy food choices, were more effective at losing weight.
Data from these patients, who participated in the intensive 14-session behavioral weight management program at University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center, was correlated with extensive data on the availability of healthy food in their communities.
“The strong informatics support from the University of Massachusetts Medical School Information Technology Department made it possible for us to cost-effectively process community food environment data,” Li noted.
“The results reflect a fresh look at the environmental impact on healthy eating by a multidisciplinary team comprising statisticians, a geographer, nutrition scientists, a psychologist, a cardiologist, and a public health officer.”
Researchers discovered the effect of living closer to a healthy food store remained constant regardless of other factors including age, race, education, and income.
Eighty-nine percent of participants were white; almost half had at least a bachelor’s degree; one-third reported household income exceeding $75,000 a year; and almost all owned cars.
With this and further investigations, Li and DPH partners hope to provide the evidence that is lacking to shift public policy in order to provide coordinated, multifaceted interventions for obesityo.
Li believes policymakers should take into account the community environment as well as the individual.
For example, communities with limited access to healthy food stores could provide public land and tax incentives to attract business owners.
“Changing the environment alone cannot produce results. However, efforts to try to change a person will be very limited without improving the environment,” Li concluded.
“This is why both aspects should be pursued at the same time with coordinated efforts.”