If you live in an area that has far more fast food options than fresh food or grocery stores, are you more likely to struggle with weight gain? Although that’s been the theory for the past few years, a new study in the International Journal of Obesity is questioning that assumption.
First, here’s how that idea got started: Research published in 2017 about children and weight gain noted that kids living near fast-food restaurants are more likely to gain a significant amount of weight compared to those living further away.
That study also found a higher density of fast food outlets in poorer neighborhoods, compounding the problem since previous research also found a link between low socioeconomic status and childhood obesity. Another factor for potential weight gain? Having a less “walkable” neighborhood, another study noted.
Although it seems like those factors would have the same effect on adults, recent research suggests that might not be the case.
Researchers looked at anonymized medical records from more than 115,000 patients aged 18 to 64 living in Washington state. They compared neighborhood location with population density data and the prevalence of supermarkets and fast-food restaurants. Then they matched that up with health variables like long-term weight gain over a five-year timeframe.
The result? There was very little correlation between proximity to fast food and weight gain, and living in a more walkable neighborhood had a negligible effect on overall weight. Those who lived closer to supermarkets—meaning they had greater access to healthier foods—were not less likely to gain weight.
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“There is a lot of prior research about where you live and weight gain,” says the study’s lead author James Buszkiewicz, Ph.D., a research scientist at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “We found that density matters to weight gain, but not proximity to fast food or supermarkets. So, that seems to suggest that those other studies were likely observing a false signal.”
That’s good news for people who live near mainly fast food options and worry that it will lead to weight gain, he added. But it’s also tricky for public health in general because it means curbing the obesity epidemic isn’t as easy as putting in more supermarkets and sidewalks.
One factor the researchers didn’t look at that Buszkiewicz says is likely a big factor is income. Being unable to afford healthy foods or not having time to exercise due to work demands are much bigger issues than whether your closest restaurant has a drive-thru window.
For more, be sure to check out The 21 Best Cheap Foods to Buy That Are Surprisingly Healthy.