University Of Utah LogoContrary to what you may believe, living near a variety of restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets and even fast food outlets could possibly lower one’s likelihood for obesity. Atleast this is what the experts from the University of Utah claim. Astonishingly, people who live more than a half mile away from any food outlets are believed to be the ones who tend to be fatter.

For the purpose of the study, the experts seemed to have compared the body mass index (BMI) of approximately 500,000 Salt Lake County residents with food-related business addresses within their neighborhoods. The findings revealed that residents seem to be 10 percent less likely to be obese if they lived in a neighborhood with a diversity of food options namely healthy groceries, full-service restaurants, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants in contrast to residents with no food options in their neighborhoods.

“Having access to a range of food options in your neighborhood affects both your energy input and output. A healthy grocery option may influence the food you choose to buy, while having multiple food destinations within walking distance might encourage you to walk, rather than drive, to your next meal.” says coauthor of the study, Cathleen Zick, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.

In a 2008 study, Zick along with her colleagues found that residents seemed to be at less risk of being obese or overweight if they lived in walkable neighborhoods, those that were more densely populated, pedestrian friendly and had a variety of destinations for pedestrians. Folding food environment into the mix, their current study is noted to demonstrate on how important proximity to healthy food options can be to one’s waistline.

The study also found that neighborhood income level appears to play a crucial role in obesity. They found that residents in low-income neighborhoods seem to have about 26 percent less chances to be obese if there was one or more healthy grocery options within walking distance as compared with low-income residents without neighborhood retail food outlets. Low-income neighborhoods are known to be defined as having an average household income in the lowest quartile of the 2000 census.

“Food environment matters differently for poor and non-poor neighborhoods. A full-service grocery store means more in low-income neighborhoods where access to private transportation may be limited,” continues Zick.

He further claimed that residents in non-low-income neighborhoods apparently do not benefit the same from having a full-service grocery nearby. Rather, it is the presence of full-service restaurants in such neighborhoods that may perhaps be associated with a lower obesity level.

Zick elucidated that, “We can speculate this is because people with access to private transportation are more likely to drive to the grocery store anyway, whereas having restaurants within walking distance may encourage walking. It is residents with no nearby food options who are at greatest risk of obesity. Not only are they without healthy grocery options nearby, there are no destinations to walk to, not even fast food. They must drive.”

Zick along with her colleagues was noted to have made use of three sources in order to examine body mass index in relationship to neighborhood characteristics such as walkability and food environment.

With the help of data from the 2000 census, they appear to have evaluated walkability features of about 566 census-block groups in Salt Lake County. Moreover, they looked at population density and the fraction of residents who walk to work. Supposedly, both these factors were related to BMI in the 2008 study.

Furthermore, they seemed to have utilized the 2008 Dun and Bradstreet business data directory in order to link local food-related business addresses with block groups through geographic coordinates. Using height and weight data from the Utah Population Data Base at the University of Utah, they were believed to have calculated the body mass indices of nearly 453,927 Salt Lake County residents who were in the ages 25 to 64, also linking them to block groups via geographic coordinates.

By merging the three sets of data, the study authors found that approximately half of Salt Lake County residents seem to enjoy a mix of food options in their neighborhoods. Whereas about 30 percent appear to have access to at least one retail food option and the remaining 30 percent seems to be living in ‘food deserts’ i.e. neighborhoods with no retail food options.

“We expected to find that multiple food options in a neighborhood increases the diversity of walkable destinations and that residents living in such neighborhoods would have lower body mass indexes relative to those living in neighborhoods with no retail food options,” adds Zick.

He continued saying that, “While we found this to be true, we were struck by the benefit low-income neighborhoods received from having access to at least one healthy grocery option. This has significant policy and planning implications.”

The study suggests that placing restrictions on fast food outlets may possibly be ineffective. However, initiatives to increase healthy neighborhood food options could reduce individuals’ obesity risks, particularly if focused on low-income neighborhoods.

The findings of the study will be published in the journal, Social Science and Medicine.