Diet and Geography

It’s a common complaint among public health folks that lots of people live in “food deserts”, areas where nutritious food is scarce and the abundance of fast-food, baked goods, etc,  makes healthy eating the hard choice, which leads to bad health outcomes.

If that reasoning is correct, then the inverse would be true: more bakeries, fast food restaurants, and other delicatessens in close proximity to you would result in more indulgent eating. 

A new article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that reasoning is too simplistic:

Harvard researchers looked at data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort covering 3,113 people in four towns between 1971 and 2001. That data included measurements of BMI over time and the moves the people made within the towns. Plus, researchers used a bunch of different sources to identify fast-food restaurants in those towns.

When they put it all together, the researchers found that living further from a fast-food restaurant was associated with only a tiny decrease in BMI — not enough to be meaningful, says Jason Block, an author of the study and an instructor in the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School.

This sort of finding does not stand on an island. Other studies have shown the presence of grocery stores hardly affects eating choices, and the law of dietary nudges suggests people are remarkably good at eating what they want over time. 

In the short term, sure, nuanced changes in an eating environment have some effect, but over the long run we acquire learned behavior to counter-act nudges that allow our instincts to override our sense of inertia.


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