Limited Supermarket Choice Affects Obesity Risk: Study

A recent Kansas State University study has found that fewer supermarkets in small cities raised the risk of obesity for low-income female residents of such areas. The finding suggests that policies to encourage healthful eating might have to be tailored to various geographic locations.

Researchers looked at the availability of food stores for low-income women in Kansas to determine whether there was a link to obesity. According to the study, limited availability of grocery stores didn’t contribute to higher obesity risk in metropolitan or rural areas, but was related to an elevated obesity risk in micropolitan areas, which are cities with fewer than 40,000 people.

“This study was one of the first to look at supermarket availability across the urban-rural continuum, and the findings suggest that policies to increase healthful food availability may need to differ depending on urban influence,” said David Dzewaltowski, Kansas State University professor and department head of kinesiology.

Authored by Dzewaltowski and Paula Ford, assistant professor of public health sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso, the study appeared in the January issue of Obesity, a research journal. Ford led the project as a doctoral student at the university.

According to earlier research, a lack of nearby food stores carrying nutritious products contributes to higher rates of obesity for shoppers. Studies also have shown that low-income residents eat more healthfully when larger grocery stores and supermarkets are accessible to them, as such stores often provide consumers with healthful foods at a lower cost than small grocery and convenience stores are able to.

The researchers looked at the availability of food stores — particularly convenience and grocery stores —within a radius of one, three or five miles of the women’s homes, which were categorized as being in a rural, micropolitan or metropolitan area. The first thing the researchers examined was the availability of such stores in the three area types

The findings revealed significant geographic differences in terms of the availability of supermarkets, although the majority of the women lived within a mile of a small grocery store. Additionally, the number and types of stores available differed in the various locales. Rural low-income women had 74 percent fewer supermarkets and 55 percent fewer small grocery stores available within a one-mile radius, vs. women in metropolitan areas, and the number of convenience stores per 10,000 residents was highest in rural areas.

The study additionally looked at how the availability of different food stores contributed to area residents’ obesity. Researchers found no link between the availability and density of food stores with obesity in metropolitan and rural areas. Contrary to previous research, however, the study did find that the presence of a supermarket doesn’t protect women from becoming obese in these areas. Women in micropolitan areas in Kansas had an 18 percent higher risk of obesity when they lived within a one-mile radius of a supermarket. The presence of small grocery and convenience stores also was associated with a raised risk of obesity.

Dzewaltowski noted the findings showed that the choice of supermarkets might be more relevant than their availability. The results further suggest that most of the low-income women studied live within the urban cluster of micropolitan areas and are therefore apt to be exposed to multiple fast-food restaurants and other such venues, which are often not present in rural areas.

According to the researchers, policies that boost the accessibility of healthful foods at small grocery stores could help reduce higher obesity rates in rural areas.

Backed by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation: Health Care for Kansans, the study employed a statewide, geographically referenced dataset of Kansans enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) from October 2004 to December 2006.
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