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Is It Better to Provide Health Food or to Eliminate Junk Food?

When it comes to the fight against obesity, what's more important: access to healthy food or barriers to unhealthy food?

Where you live can have a lot to do with how you eat, but just how much is a matter of debate. As I noted yesterday, developing more grocery stores in "food deserts"—those barren stretches of the city where you’re more likely to find a liquor store than a supermarket—is not necessarily the key to healthier eating in those communities. Now, a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine has more evidence to add to the desert debate.

Researchers examined data from about 5,000 young adults in four communities across the United States, and found that supermarket and grocery store access translated into neither an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption nor a healthier diet. What the study did find, however, is that a close proximity to fast food restaurants correlated with eating more fast food for one demographic—low-income men. Instead of pushing for more new supermarkets, the authors suggest that taxing junk food and subsidizing healthy food might make a bigger difference in how everyone eats.

The approach raises a question that food experts have been kicking around for a while now: Is it better to promote a broader availability of healthy foods, or to eliminate bad choices? After all, it’s not just the absence of air-conditioned produce aisles that makes eating well in a food desert so difficult. Perhaps policymakers should take on the challenge of draining the "food swamp." That is, reducing the presence of cheap, easily accessible fast food. In a short commentary on the most recent study, two Los Angeles-area experts praised their city for its fast-food zoning ordinance, which doesn't allow fast-food chains to open in certain ares. They suggest that successful anti-obesity initiatives may also have to take a similar, more politically challenging path by reducing access to unhealthy products.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user kevindooley

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