MONDAY, July 11 (HealthDay News) -- Into America's fight against obesity comes new research pitting fast food against fruits and veggies, and fast food, it seems, is the winner.
Researchers found that so-called "food deserts," where there are few or no supermarkets and fast food is what's most available, tend to draw locals to the fast food. But in areas where there are also supermarkets and grocery stores, food choices appear unrelated to healthy eating.
"It's not enough to say we will build it [supermarkets] and people will come," said lead researcher Penny Gordon-Larsen, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health in Chapel Hill.
For the study, Gordon-Larsen's team used data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study to look at fast food consumption vs. eating more fruits and vegetables based on the availability of fast food restaurants and supermarkets and grocery stores in neighborhoods in Birmingham, Ala., Chicago, Minneapolis and Oakland.
The researchers asked a total of 5,115 people in these areas how often they ate fast food, and had them detail their diet in the past month and also their usual dietary habits.
Among those living in low-income areas, there was a strong association between the availability of fast food and how much of it was part of their diet, the researchers found. This association was particularly strong among men who lived within one to two miles of a fast food restaurant.
However, there was no strong association between living near a supermarket and eating more fruits or vegetables, the researchers said.
Gordon-Larsen said healthy foods need to be affordable, and there needs to be a concerted effort to promote healthy eating, includes educating people about healthy food choices available in fast food restaurants and grocery stores.
"There are better choices to make in those restaurants," Gordon-Larsen said. "If you chose to go to those restaurants, there are things you can buy that are relatively more healthy as opposed to less healthy."
The report was published in the July 11 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
The researchers noted the limitations of this study included the self-reporting of diet choices and the frequency of fast-food consumption.
However, Dr. Paul A. Simon, from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and co-author of an accompanying editorial in the journal, said that "the study's results are consistent with other research that indicate frequent consumption of fast food is a risk factor for obesity."
Because the research didn't show a relationship between diet and supermarkets doesn't mean supermarkets aren't important, Simon added. In many areas, supermarkets or grocery stores do not provide healthy food options, he said.
"The effort to attract supermarkets to these so-called 'food deserts' is important, but it is not sufficient. In addition, there are lots of things that have to happen within the supermarket," Simon said.
For example, healthy foods need to be in prominent places, priced competitively and look attractive, he said.
Simon says that many of these areas are not really food deserts, they are what he calls "food swamps."
"They are loaded with unhealthy food options and little access to healthier affordable options," he said. "The obesity problem isn't just a lifestyle issue. It's not just about individuals and families making bad choices. It's also about the environment and the fact that the environment shapes our choices to a very powerful degree."
Simon thinks creating an environment in which the healthy choice is the easy one will go a long way to getting the obesity epidemic under control.
For more information on healthy eating, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
SOURCES: Penny Gordon-Larsen, Ph.D., associate professor, nutrition, University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health, Chapel Hill; Paul A. Simon, M.D., M.P.H., director, division of chronic disease and injury prevention, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health; July 11, 2011, Archives of Internal Medicine
All rights reserved