Where you live may have a serious impact on your weight and health, according to a statewide study released last week.
Using data on the locations of retail food outlets and the health statistics of 40,000 Californians, researchers found that people who have easier access to fast-food and convenience stores than grocery and produce outlets are more likely to suffer from obesity and diabetes.
“We’re living in a fast-food jungle and the health effects of that are obvious,” said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the Davis-based California Center for Public Health Advocacy, an author of the study.
The study was co-authored by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and PolicyLink, a nonprofit health advocacy group.
“We now have hard science to show that all this junk food in our neighborhoods is contributing to the growing obesity and diabetes epidemic,” Goldstein said. “What we found was a strong and direct relationship between the food options available in a neighborhood and the health of the people living there.”
Researchers developed a score called the Retail Food Environment Index that compares the number of fast-food and convenience stores to the number of grocery stores and produce outlets in different areas. The higher the index, the more fast-food options there are in comparison to grocery and produce options.
For the participants in the study, the statewide average index was 4.5, meaning there are four-and-a-half fast-food and convenience stores in their neighborhoods for every grocery store or produce outlet.
The study found that people who live in areas with five times as many fast-food options as grocery options were 23 percent more likely to be obese and 20 percent more likely to have diabetes as compared to people who live in areas with three times as many fast-food options.
The county with the highest average index was San Bernardino, with a score of 5.6. In other words, there are 5.6 times as many fast-food options as there are produce and grocery options. Stanislaus County was the second-highest with 5.48. The counties with the lowest scores were Marin and Santa Cruz, at 2.06 and 2.24, respectively.
Data was not compiled for Yolo County or any county with fewer than 250,000 residents, but Goldstein said the results were still applicable.
“There are certainly some neighborhoods in Davis where there are a lot of healthy options and there are some neighborhoods where it is predominantly fast food,” he said. “We’re more likely to eat the food that’s around us than we are to go far away to eat.”
Cheryl Boney, deputy director for Public Health Programs for Yolo County, said the study reinforces the idea that more than just the choices people make that affect their health.
“A lot of people like to say it’s a personal thing, but there really are other factors that matter,” Boney said.
Health officials have been attending planning commission and other public meetings to encourage local leaders to create healthy balances in communities, she said.
“We want to make sure obesity and environment is being considered in the design,” she said. “We want to try to make it an environment that encourages physical activity and also has different resources available.”
Roughly 60 percent of adults in Yolo County are obese or overweight, she said, and the number of children in these categories is growing as well.
The authors of the study included several recommendations for policymakers to improve public health. Victor Rubin, vice president of research at PolicyLink, said local leaders should look at ways to improve the number of healthy options in areas where they are lacking, particularly in low-income areas. This could be achieved by providing financial incentives.
“The best program of financial incentive … is Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative,” Rubin said. “It’s been very successful at providing loans and grants for new stores.”
There is a bill in the state legislature to create a California version of that program, which is designed to encourage grocery store growth, he said, but in the meantime, it’s up to the community to make the change.
“Many of the places we’ve seen that have created healthier options have that because the neighbors really demanded it and figured out how to make it happen,” he said.
The report has generated opposition among some groups, including the California Restaurant Association. The association did not respond to multiple calls for comment, but said in the Los Angeles Times on Apr. 29 that health is up to the individual.
“To suggest that living near a quick-service restaurant is a health threat akin to living next to a coal plant is ludicrous,” said association president Jot Condie in the Los Angeles Times article.
The study’s authors also recommended that fast-food restaurants be required to post nutritional information on menu boards. A bill that would have done just that in California was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in October.
More information and the full text of the study can be found online at publichealthadvocacy.org/designedfordisease.html.
JEREMY OGUL can be reached at email@example.com. XXX