Where You Live is Making You Fat

Study finds that fresh foods, walkable neighborhoods help prevent obesity

Next time you consider buying a house, you can add this to your neighborhood search criteria: Will it make you fat? A new study suggests that living in mixed-use neighborhoods, where stores, farmers markets and even houses of worship are within walking distance, could reduce your chances of becoming obese. Indeed, access to fresh foods and neighborhood walkability are key factors in reducing obesity rates.

Researchers took data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), an ongoing research study of 6,000 American adults (living in New York City, St. Paul, Minnesota, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Forsyth County, North Carolina) that's overseen by the NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. For this study, they looked at data from 4,008 patients, ages 45-84, enrolled in MESA for more than five years. Over five years, 406, or 10 percent, of the participants became obese. When researchers analyzed the data in order to find a cause for the rise in obesity—controlling for variables that impact obesity like race, gender, smoking and socio-economic background—they found access to fresh food and walkability of the neighborhood were the most important factors.

Lead Researcher Amy Auchincloss said she was surprised to see these factors had such an influence on obesity.

“Simply having destinations within walking distance such as stores, cleaners, and faith-based organizations, promotes walking,” said Auchincloss, an assistant professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health.

Studies that look into causes of obesity have previously shown that people who live in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be obese. The association between access to fresh foods and obesity rates has led some public health organizations to advocate for more farmer’s markets, supermarkets and other stores that bring fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods to neighborhoods.

If applied, this study's findings could help reduce obesity from its current rate of 36 percent for adults and 17 percent of children.

“Having healthy foods easily available and designing walkable residential environments will not reverse the obesity epidemic by themselves," the study's authors write, "but may play an important role in combination with other facilitators of healthy behaviors.”

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