The idea of ‘food deserts’ originally came from England in the early 90s. Food deserts are places where obesity is caused or at least promoted by the lack of closely available supermarkets that provide fresh fruits and vegetables in poor neighborhoods of inner cities but also in some rural areas. Instead of good food these food deserts have fast food restaurants and small convenience stores where they only sell highly processed non-perishable foods like potato chips and soda. Of course this idea depends on the principal that people get fat because they eat the wrong foods, which, to me, is a suspect view in the first place. Now there are several careful studies that fail to find an effect of food deserts on diet.
Roupeng An and Roland Sturm, analyzing data from 8226 children and 5236 adolescents from the 2005 and 2007 California Health Survey, could find no relationship between food environment (measured by counts and density of fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and various sized food stores within a mile and a half of home or school) and diet (daily servings of fruits and vegetables, juice, milk, soda, high sugar foods and fast food).(1)
Another recent report (2) used 15 years of data on more than 5,000 young adults, 18 to 30 years old, in a variety of places around the United States. This study found that an increase in fast food availability within 3 km of the home was associated with a small increase in fast food consumption but it seemed to be a man thing - there were no consistent or strong correlations between neighborhood fast food availability and individual consumption of fast food for women of any income level. Also greater proximity to supermarkets was not correlated in any consistent fashion with diet or fruit and vegetable intakes for both sexes.
It seems that food deserts don’t seem to make poor people eat any wronger than they would eat anyway. But these studies can’t really be interpreted as contradicting the more fundamental proposition that people get fat because they eat the wrong foods. So the authors of both of these studies suggest that maybe we should try policies such as higher taxes on bad food and subsidies of good food to make people eat the right things.
1. An R, Sturm R. School and residential neighborhood food environment and diet among California youth. Am J Prev. Med. 2012;42:129-135.
2.Boone-Heinonen J et al. Fast food restaurants and food stores: longitudinal associations with diet in young to middle-aged adults: the CARDIA study. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171:1162-70.