Women living near restaurants tend to have a higher BMI, while those near supermarkets might enjoy a relatively lower BMI.
The study by scientists with the University at Buffalo iinvolved 172 participants and was published in the April issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research
. The article is titled, "Food Environment, Built Environment and Women's BMI: Evidence from Erie County, New York."
The interaction of the food environment and the built environment in a neighborhood carries significant consequences for obesity. When the neighbourhood is dominated by restaurants, one could detect a net increase in BMI. Clearly a diverse land-use mix is beneficial for promoting physical activity, says Samina Raja, lead author and UB professor of urban and regional planning.
Hence future research on the built environment and health must take into account the role of the food environment on women's health, and the study offers suggestions for how food environments may be improved using planning strategies.
Raja is a nationally regarded community-based scholar in the fields of food security planning and community health whose work supports and is supported by UB's Civic Engagement and Public Policy research initiative.
She points out that more than one-third of U.S. adults were reported to be obese in 2006, with the prevalence of obesity slightly greater among women than men.
"The prevalence of obesity is a significant public health concern because it places individuals at a risk for a variety of diseases," she says, "and the role of environmental factors in contributing to obesity has received a lot of attention. We have attempted here to explain the paradox of high BMI rates among women living in highly walkable inner city neighborhoods.
Raja says the study has several limitations, among them, the fact that the researchers did not know where their subjects shopped for food, only what outlets were closest geographically. The also were not able to classify restaurants based on their quality — fast-food and sit-down restaurants were treated as a single category, even though they know that quality varies widely across different types of restaurants.
"The study raises several questions to be addressed in future research," she says, "and suggests that innovative research designs will be necessary to develop greater evidence of causality — perhaps longitudinal studies that look at how moving one's residence (thus changing exposure to a particular food, food type or built environment) affects physical activity, eating behavior and health outcomes."
The study identifies planning strategies and tools available to improve community food and built environments to support healthy eating behavior.
"Comprehensive plans, regulatory mechanisms and financial incentives can be used individually or in concert to improve food environments," the study says, and cites recent efforts in Madison and Dane County, Wis.; Marin County, Calif.; Harrison County, Miss.; special regulations adopted in New York City that offer zoning incentives (e.g. allowing denser development and reduction in parking requirements) for development projects that dedicate a greater store floor area to fresh foods in underserved neighborhoods; and Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative.