Food Deserts: Is Your Neighborhood Making You Fat?

According to several studies, it just might be. Most individuals know that the keys to good health are a combination of good nutrition, regular physical activity, stress management and genetics. Nutrition and regular physical activity, however, can take a back seat when your environment is one in which access to healthy foods—or even safe sidewalks—are almost impossible to find.

A recent study in the Journal of Planning Education and Research found that women who lived closer to a convenience store than a grocery store were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI). To understand why this association was identified, it may be important to look at the overall availability of food at your local convenience store or gas station. Gas stations, movie theatres, the ball park, and even your local mall’s food court are areas that offer what I refer to as “secondary dining.” The main goal of these food establishments is to provide a service or entertain you; not to feed you nutritiously. These places rely on food that can be prepared quickly and conveniently using salt, fat and sugar to enhance flavor and taste rather than fresh produce, healthy fats and spices.

For example, consider the offerings at a convenience store. You walk in and can choose from a variety of calorie-dense, nutritionally sparse foods such as breakfast sandwiches, pastries and muffins, chips, candy, cookies, ice cream, sugary sodas, juices and frozen drinks, as well as a smorgasbord of prepared hot items like pizza, hot dogs and wings. At first glance, the most nutritious food you’re likely to find at most is coffee and that assumes you don’t add a flavored creamer or sugar.

Although some convenience stores have started providing fresh fruit, smoothies and salads, they are not common in most neighborhoods. Even if they are available, these items are often priced out of range for most of their consumers.

For most of us, convenience stores are just that: a place of convenience. A place to go if we need a gallon of milk or to satisfy a chocolate craving. It’s not a place where we shop for our groceries.

But, for some, a convenience store is a grocery store. The nearest actual grocery store might be 10 miles away which, if transportation is not available, makes it pretty difficult to patronize. For individuals in this predicament—many of which are included in the aforementioned study—it is not surprising that their BMIs are higher than average.

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