Proximity to Healthy Food Stores Supports Better Dieting

The closer obese patients live to a grocery store with a decent selection of healthy foods, the more likely they are to have better diets.

The closer patients live to a grocery store with a decent selection of healthy foods, the more likely they are to have better diets, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School studied 204 obese participants aged 20 to 72 years with metabolic syndrome. The participants were recruited between June 2009 and January 2012 and had check-in appointments at 3, 6, and 12 months post-intervention.

The investigators considered a store to have adequate availability of healthy foods if it had at least 1 item available in each of 20 healthy food categories. The distance from the participants’ residences to the nearest healthy food store was also taken into consideration.

“Community health programs should be evidence based, but many studies have showed conflicting associations between the distance to grocery stores and lower or higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes,” said principal investigator and senior study author Wenjun Li, PhD, in a press release. “Our study is different. It looks at whether neighborhood environment becomes a limiting factor when a person wants to improve their diet. If you live far away from a grocery store, and you are trying to change your diet, will that affect you or not?”

Just over half of the 106 food stores evaluated in the study had a healthy food availability index (HFAI) ≥20 points, which indicated the store was approximately 1.85 miles away from the home. According to the researchers, proximity to a healthy grocery store was correlated with greater improvements in dieting. Particularly, living closer to a healthy food store was associated with greater improvements in consumption of dietary fiber and total fruit and vegetables—an effect that held true across all participants, regardless of their age, race, education, or income.

“The findings of this study support a cornerstone theory…that supportive environments can facilitate behavior change and ultimately improve health,” said study co-author Thomas Land, PhD, in a press release.

The research group said they hope their conclusions can influence public policy and provide coordinated and multifaceted interventions for obese citizens and their communities. One idea the researches floated is public land and tax incentives for business owners who could open healthy food stores in communities with limited access to them.

"Changing the environment alone cannot produce results. However, efforts to try to change a person will be very limited without improving the environment," Dr. Li concluded. "This is why both aspects should be pursued at the same time with coordinated efforts."