Study: No magic bullet to improve diet, stem obesity epidemic

Will people eat healthier foods if fresh fruits and vegetables are available in stores near their homes? Will they eat less fast food if restaurants are not in their neighborhoods?

These and other policy interventions may be useful steps toward better public health, but no single approach alone will effectively improve Americans’ diets or stem the obesity epidemic, concludes a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In a report released July 11 in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, nutrition researchers from UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health found that having access to neighborhood grocery stores or larger supermarkets alone did not make a significant change in dietary habits. Living near fast food restaurants seemed to increase the amount of fast food consumed by lower income males, but findings were mixed across other groups, said Penny Gordon-Larsen, Ph.D., the study’s senior author.

“Our study did not examine the quality of foods offered or the purchasing patterns at fast food restaurants, supermarkets and grocery stores,” Gordon-Larsen said. “We only examined the availability of fast food restaurants, supermarkets and smaller grocery stores. What we can conclude, though, is that simply introducing a supermarket in a neighborhood may not be enough – the new store should be accompanied with multifaceted efforts, such as promotion, education and incentives for healthier options.”

According to background information in the article, the federal government has made one of its priorities reducing “food deserts,” areas in which healthy food is difficult to find. “Such policies stem from limited evidence that food resources are related to obesity and are inequitably allocated according to neighborhood wealth,” wrote the authors. “Implicit in these policy initiatives is that reduced access to fast food and increased access to supermarkets will translate into improvements in diet behavior and health.”

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Published July 13, 2011.