Obesity is linked to where you live – would regulating fast food outlets change this?

December 19, 2017 by Matthew Hobbs, The Conversation, The Conversation
Credit: S Kozakiewicz/Shutterstock.com

The type of neighbourhood you live in predicts how likely you are to be obese, our latest research shows. And it's a bit more complicated than some might assume.

Obesity is associated with a range of diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and some cancers, so finding ways to stop people becoming obese is important for public health and for the public purse. More than a quarter of people in the UK are obese, but levels of vary by region. We wanted to investigate the characteristics of an "obesogenic" environment – an environment that encourages weight gain – specifically, the combined factors of easy access to and availability of places to exercise.

For our study, we split residential areas in Yorkshire, England, into five types, based on the number of and opportunities for physical activity: saturated; moderate availability; low availability; , limited food; and moderate physical activity, ample food.

Our analysis showed that only two of the types were associated (negatively and positively) with obesity. Saturated neighbourhoods, which are characterised by a high availability of fast-food outlets, and supermarkets as well as a high availability of gyms and parks, were associated with a 14% lower risk of obesity.

While moderate availability neighbourhoods – those characterised by a moderate number of food outlets and places to exercise – were associated with an 18% higher risk of obesity.

Saturated neighbourhoods have features that are both obesity promoting and constraining. They have a high density of fast-food outlets, but also a high density of places to exercise. What gives?

The lower risk of obesity in these neighbourhoods might be explained by population density. Saturated neighbourhoods were predominantly urban and densely populated. An earlier study of 419,000 UK adults in 22 cities showed that densely populated urban areas are associated with a lower risk of obesity, and moderately populated areas are associated with a higher risk of obesity.

People who live in the moderately populated suburbs – the so-called suburban sprawl – may be more likely to get in their car and drive to friends, work or the shops. But, in the heart of the city, everything is much more walkable. This increase in walking may partly explain the lower rates of obesity in densely populated areas.

And there may be factors that explain the link between the moderate availability of exercise facilities and higher rates of obesity. In our study, we didn't capture the quality of the public spaces that could be used for exercise. Living near a park may offer opportunities to jog or take a dog for a walk, but if people feel unsafe in those spaces, they may avoid them.

Many environmental influences

Regulating fast food outlets by restricting planning applications is one policy option to reduce obesity levels – a strategy recently adopted by London's mayor, Sadiq Khan. But this seemingly simple solution is – as our research shows – not so simple.

It fails to acknowledge many other environmental influences. For example, the number of fast-food outlets in an area is restricted by the local council, people will still be able to buy unhealthy food from convenience stores or supermarkets. Also, restricting fast-food outlets does nothing to change the availability – or quality – of places to be physically active.

While we don't dispute the link between fast food and obesity, our study highlights the multidimensional, nuanced nature of obesogenic neighbourhoods. Moving beyond regulating fast-food outlets to consider other aspects of the neighbourhoods we live in will help provide healthier environments.

Explore further: Food swamps predict obesity rates better than food deserts

Related Stories

Food swamps predict obesity rates better than food deserts

November 15, 2017
A new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut suggests that living in a food swamp – a neighborhood where fast food and junk food outlets outnumber healthy alternatives – ...

Living near fast food outlets linked to weight gain in primary school children

September 11, 2017
Children with greater access to fast food outlets are more likely to gain weight compared to those living further away, new research suggests.

Limiting access to fast-food restaurants unlikely to reduce obesity

August 7, 2017
Living near fast-food restaurants and supermarkets has little impact on an individual's body mass index, according to new Indiana University research.

Children living close to fast food outlets more likely to be overweight

February 13, 2014
Children living in areas surrounded by fast food outlets are more likely to be overweight or obese according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR).

Obesity higher in neighborhoods with more fast food

May 13, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—A new study zeroes in on the effect that fast-food restaurants have on obesity and nutritional health in specific neighborhoods.

Toxic mix of fast-food outlets in inner city neighbourhoods fuelling diabetes and obesity epidemic

November 11, 2014
New study led by University of Leicester reveals that there is TWICE the number of fast-food outlets in inner city neighbourhoods with high density non-white ethnic minority groups and in socially deprived areas

Recommended for you

Antidepressant use may contribute to long-term population weight gain

May 24, 2018
Researchers at King's College London have found that patients prescribed any of the 12 most commonly used antidepressants were 21% more likely to experience an episode of gain weight than those not taking the drugs, (after ...

Can excess weight in toddlers cause brain drain?

May 23, 2018
(HealthDay)—Extra pounds in early childhood may do more than put a child's physical health at risk—they might result in a slightly lower IQ, new research suggests.

Early-life obesity impacts children's learning and memory, study suggests

May 23, 2018
A new study by Brown University epidemiologists found that children on the threshold of obesity or overweight in the first two years of life had lower perceptual reasoning and working memory scores than lean children when ...

World faces 'staggering' obesity challenge: study

May 23, 2018
In 27 years from now, almost a quarter of the global population will be obese, researchers said Wednesday, warning of the mounting medical bill.

Some calories more harmful than others

May 15, 2018
While calories from any food have the potential to increase the risk of obesity and other cardiometabolic diseases, 22 nutrition researchers agree that sugar-sweetened beverages play a unique role in chronic health problems. ...

Fat cells seem to remember unhealthy diet

April 23, 2018
It only takes 24 hours for a so-called precursor fat cell to reprogram its epigenetic recipe for developing into a fat cell. This change occurs when the cell is put into contact with the fatty acid palmitate or the hormone ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.