Proximity to Fast Food Biggest Obesity Indicator

The number of nearby fast-food restaurants has a bigger impact on obesity among the poor than the availability of grocery stores that stock fresh food and vegetables, according to a study reported over the weekend by the Los Angeles Times.

The study, led by Barry Popkin, director of the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, tracked 5,000 people in several major U.S. cities for 15 years, noting how far they lived from fast-food restaurants and supermarkets. The study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

As other studies have reported, the researchers found that living near fast-food restaurants was associated with a greater consumption of fast food, especially, in this case, among low-income men.

But the scientists also found that easy access to supermarkets was not linked to a greater consumption of healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats and whole grains.

The Times story said fast food often costs less than fresh food. Part of the obesity problem in low-income neighborhoods may be lack of education on healthful diets, according to the article.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, an outspoken advocate of healthful eating, said in an email that shopping at supermarkets did not automatically translate to good choices.

“If you go into most grocery stores across America, the majority of the store is chock-full of processed food calling out to you from the packages, ‘Pick me! I’m tastier and more convenient,’ ” Oliver wrote. “And ringed around all this are good old veggies, with no instructions.”

In Santa Ana, food trucks have added to the obesity controversy. They park near schools and sell junk food but also provide a community service by stocking basic household items that make them convenient for those with limited access to transportation.

Last month the Orange County Board of Supervisors killed a plan to apply for $10 million in federal aid for obesity education programs because supervisors said they didn’t want to be linked to Obamacare.