Americans are fatter and more unhealthy than ever before.
In October, a report released by the National Center for Health Statistics confirmed that U.S. obesity rates have reached an all-time high, with nearly 40 percent of adults and 19 percent of youth qualifying as obese.
For a long time, much of the blame for this public health crisis has been blamed on “food deserts.” According to the American Nutrition Association, food deserts are defined as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods…this is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” Food deserts and economically depressed regions often go hand-in-hand.
The theory was that these “food deserts” were short on easy access to wholesome foods, but had plenty of convenient stores and fast food restaurants within their boundaries. Such places offer a lot of high-calorie foods and ultra-processed foods, so visiting them regularly can help develop horrible nutrition habits.
However, a new study from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business casts doubt on the impact food deserts have on consumer choices. From UChicagoNews:
A new Chicago Booth study finds that food deserts have no meaningful effect on eating habits. Exposing low-income households to the same products and prices as those in high-income households reduces nutritional inequality by only 9 percent while the remaining 91 percent of the nutrition gap is driven by difference in what shoppers prefer to buy, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper published recently.
The study honed in on two key factors—one, what happens to disadvantaged consumers’ choices when new supermarkets open in food deserts? And two, what happens when people move from food deserts to areas with more widespread healthier offerings?
In their summation of the findings, CityLab points out that “improving neighborhood access to better grocery stores is responsible for just 5 percent of the difference in the nutritional choices of both high- and low-income people” and that “Moving to a neighborhood where people have healthier eating habits has virtually no impact in the short term and a very small impact in the medium term, leading to just about a 3 percent improvement in the Healthy Eating Index scores of their grocery purchases.”
The researchers conclude that education may be the ultimate deciding factor in how people eat, and that those living in what we define as “food deserts” are, on average, less knowledgeable about the long-term benefits of good nutrition.
“Food knowledge and education seem to explain a big chunk of the preferences for what people buy when they shop for groceries,” says Jean-Pierre Dubé, a Chicago Booth Professor of Marketing and one of the study’s lead authors. “If you are educated about the long-term benefits of nutrition, it could affect your shopping behavior.”
While better nutrition education could surely help people of all classes improve their eating habits, I’m not sure this study accounts for the fact that consumers who’ve grown up in food deserts developed unhealthy eating habits long before they were eventually given access to more wholesome options. We know that ultra-processed foods can be addicting, thanks to extreme amounts of sugar, saturated fat, sodium, etc.
“Highly processed foods can taste really good. A little too good. This is because they’re designed to elicit maximal levels of pleasure and consumption,” Ryan Andrews, RD and coach at Precision Nutrition, says. Over time, our brains can get addicted to the effects highly processed foods have on our bodies, so we seek them out. A 2015 study in the scientific journal PLoS ONE concluded that “highly processed foods, which may share characteristics with drugs of abuse (i.e., high dose, rapid rate of absorption), appear to be particularly associated with ‘food addiction.'”
So just like any addiction, simply having healthier alternatives may not do a whole lot of good in terms of breaking the addiction. I’d be interested to look at how the next generation of people in these “former food deserts” that now have access to more wholesome options will eat. Will they be able to avoid forming an addiction to the wrong foods in the first place? The answer to that question could have a major impact on the future of public health in America.