food swamp

NEWS: Food Swamps Contribute to Obesity More Than Food Deserts

Photo (cc) Pete Beaumont

A new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut found that living in a food swamp is a stronger predictor of obesity than living in a food desert.

The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, is the first research devoted to comparing food swamps to food deserts and their association with high obesity rates.

What is a Food Swamp?

A food swamp is an area where an abundance of fast food, junk food outlets, convenience stores and liquor stores outnumbers healthy food options.

It’s distinct from a food desert, which is a neighborhood with little access to affordable, nutritious food. The USDA describes a food desert as “a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”

Key Findings from the New Study

Too Much Junk Food is the Major Problem, Not Just Too Little Healthy Food
Food swamps are a stronger predictor than food deserts on obesity rates among U.S. That means that a high density of fast food stores and junk food outlets outweighs the presence of a grocery store in a neighborhood.

Imbalanced Food Environments
The balance among fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and grocery stores is a more important determinant of obesity levels than the presence of supercenters, farmer’s markets, or other specialized food stores. The food swamp effect was stronger in counties with greater income inequality and where residents are less mobile.

Effect of Built Environment on Obesity
The research suggests that “policies, like zoning laws, could lower obesity rates by about three percent. These results are consistent with the notion that the built environment shapes health, even after controlling for selection and individuals’ preferences to live in certain neighborhoods.”

Future Research on Zoning Polices is Needed
“The findings from the study have implications for zoning policies to reduce the harm associated with food swamps. Future research is needed to: identify and refine the types of zoning policies recommended (e.g., restrictions on locations of fast food restaurants, closing times, distances from public places); define terms such as “fast-food restaurant”, “formula restaurant”, and “carryout” to avoid enforcement challenges; (3) identify priority locations that meet the definition of food deserts or food swamps for zoning interventions; and (4) study how to mobilize community members and leaders.”

Draining the Swamp

Some previous research has indicated that the mere presence of healthy food options in food deserts doesn’t make a big enough impact on the eating choices of the people that live there. Convenience, poor habits, nutrition education, and aggressive advertising by fast food and junk food companies are also factors.

Obesity rates are higher in low-income populations, certain ethnic and racial groups, and in certain geographic areas. The idea that where you live has a big impact on your health and longevity is central to Blue Zones research and a core part of the work done in Blue Zones Project communities.

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November 15, 2017