Living Near Fast Food Restaurants May Have Little Impact on Weight

Living in close proximity to a fast-food restaurant or a supermarket appears to have very little impact on an individual’s body mass index (BMI), according to a new study at Indiana University (IU).

While previous research on this topic has suggested a link between food outlet access and BMI, these studies were based on snapshots in time, known as cross-sectional data.

“We couldn’t find evidence to support policies based on that presumed link,” said Dr. Coady Wing from IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“Strategies like the healthy food financing initiatives some cities are pursuing could have benefits, for example reducing the saturation of unhealthy food sources in impoverished neighborhoods. But those policies alone aren’t likely to lead to healthier BMI.”

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the largest national study ever conducted on the connection between residential environments and BMI: the Weight and Veterans’ Environments Study, a comprehensive database stretching from 2009 to 2014 and covering 1.7 million veterans living in 382 metropolitan areas.

By using this data, the researchers were able to assess how BMI changed with each veteran and match it with the locations of fast-food outlets and supercenters such as Target and Walmart stores.

The researchers calculated BMI by using height and weight measurements taken when the veterans visited a doctor, nurse practitioner or other provider. They added up the number of chain fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, and other food outlets within one mile and three miles of the person’s residence.

With that information, the researchers could track BMI changes, even when a person moved from one area to another or when a fast-food or other outlet opened or closed.

The key findings of the study are as follows:

  • changes in the availability of fast-food restaurants and supermarkets near a person’s home are not linked to reductions in BMI;
  • there is no evidence that relationships between BMI and food outlets are different in low-income neighborhoods;
  • public policies designed to reduce fast-food restaurants and increase supermarkets are unlikely to reduce obesity, although such policies may make it easier for people to access healthy foods.

“Fast food is generally not good for you, and supermarkets do sell healthy food, but our results suggest blocking the opening of a new fast-food restaurant or subsidizing a local supermarket will do little to reduce obesity,” Wing said.

Source: Indiana University