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For Obesity, the Availability of Unhealthy Options May Outweigh the Healthier Ones

Public health efforts surrounding nutrition often focus on what’s missing – places that don’t offer healthy options. New research, however, raises the possibility that what matters is what’s actually available – the abundance of unhealthy options. 

The analysis was conducted by experts at University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, with help from experts at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. It compares “food deserts,” a term that has long been used in public health and food policy, to a newer concept, “food swamps.”

Many of you may have heard of “food deserts,” areas that lack available healthy food, especially fresh produce. People who live in food deserts need to travel for significant amounts of time to get to grocery stores with healthy options like fruits and vegetables. But there is still disagreement, and some conflicting data, on whether the existence of food deserts is an accurate predictor of a region’s obesity rate. 

A “food swamp,” by comparison, considers not only whether grocery stores are nearby, but also how many unhealthy food options are available in the same area. Food swamps have a much higher density of unhealthy options than healthy options. 

The recent study found that food swamps better predict high obesity rates than food deserts. In other words, obesity rates tend to be high in communities where the ratio of unhealthy options to healthy options is high. Some of these communities may be food deserts – that is, they might not have an accessible grocery store – but many of them actually do have healthy options available; these healthier options are just “swamped” with a whole lot more junk food and fast food options. 

Even more troubling, the research found that the “food swamp effect” was more pronounced where income equality was greater and where mobility was lower (fewer people with cars, less public transportation, and so on). And the communities that are already the most disadvantaged are also more likely to be food swamps.  

Assuming that further research supports these findings, this study indicates that healthy food availability alone isn’t enough to address growing obesity rates. As Duke University’s Dr. Kelly Brownell, one of the study’s authors, explained it to us, “Optimizing nutrition for the country will involve increased consumption of foods that improve health and decreased consumption of those that do not. This study underscores the need for policy to tackle both.”

While there is certainly value in bringing affordable produce to places that don’t have it, that alone won’t be sufficient. We also need to consider how to reduce the number of unhealthy options that so often overwhelm the healthy ones, especially in communities with the fewest resources to invest in health. 

-By Ben Pallant and Kelly Close

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