Findings from a new study on fast food availability appear to turn previous research on its head.
While the link between fries and fat might seem like a no-brainer, the study shows living close to fast food outlets isn’t likely to result in a higher body mass index. Conversely, living near a supermarket doesn’t correlate to lower weight. The study’s author says this indicates policies to reduce the number of fast food places — or even to open more supermarkets — will not likely reduce obesity.
Indiana University environmental affairs professor Coady Wing was part of a team of researchers involved in the recent study. “Just because there is a fast food restaurant nearby, doesn’t mean you have to eat at it,” Wing says. “And just because there is a supermarket selling healthy food nearby doesn’t mean you do have to eat it [either].”
Previous research, such as well-publicized 2014 study from the University of Cambridge, has determined people living close to certain food outlets, such as fast food restaurants, are more likely to be obese.
Based on that intuitive link, public health crusaders have pushed for policy that limits fast food in poverty-stricken areas. However, one such effort, in Los Angeles, proved to have no effect on residents’ weight.
Unlike previous studies, which focused on discrete snapshots in time, the new Indiana University project was a longitudinal study. Using information about veterans pulled from Veterans Affairs data, researchers were able to analyze weight and geographic information for 2 million people across more than five years, even if a subject moved to a new area.
What they found — at least in the population analyzed — was there wasn’t a link between fast food availability and BMI. “When we look at that analysis, which we think is the most credible, we find no effect of living close to these places,” Wing says.
The study also looked at low-income areas that often have limited access to healthy food options and a higher number of fast food outlets.
“We did not find that it mattered more or less there, it also had no relationship to BMI,” Wing says.
There are, however, some limitations to the study. For example, the research couldn’t account for lack of transportation. Additionally, veterans aren’t a stand-in for the U.S. population as a whole, being majority male and older.
Wing says that even though potential policy changes targeting food availability might not have an effect on obesity, there is still a possibility they could increase access to healthy food regardless.
The findings appeared in the August version of the journal Health Affairs.
This story was produced by a partnership between Indiana Public Broadcasting and Side Effects Public Media, a reporting collaborative focused on public health.