Environment and Healthy Eating Behavior
Obesity is a serious disease that affects approximately 24 percent of the population in the United States. With obesity trends continually on the rise, it is important to identify and address the potential factors causing the weight increase. Previous research studies show correlations of food deserts, which are areas with little or no access to foods needed for a healthy diet, with obesity rates in an area. Better access to transportation, high walkability areas, and areas with fewer fast-food outlets are associated with lower obesity rates. However, areas mainly containing small grocery stores or convenience stores are correlated to higher obesity rates. For this study, data from the Southern Community Cohort Study was used to gather participant information on eating behaviors of people living in many different neighborhoods in the Southern United States. A factor analysis of census data was used to develop 10 variables that measure socioeconomic differences in places. Data from Economic Census 2007 census tracts were used to measure the density of food stores at the zip code level. The dependent variable was a measure of healthy eating behavior that combined fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Hierarchical linear models showed that demographic characteristics of a person’s neighborhood accounted for differences in healthy eating after controlling for individual differences. Contrary to the food desert hypothesis, less healthy eating was associated with areas that have a higher density of food stores. More research needs to be done to understand how people interact with their local food environments.