Shoppers at PCC Natural Markets, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joes are less likely to be obese than shoppers at low-cost grocery stores, according to a new report from the Seattle Obesity Study.
Food shoppers at these higher-price stores, as defined by the study, had an obesity rate of 4 to 5 percent versus nearly 40 percent for Albertsons’ shoppers. The Seattle region, which was the focus of the research, has an obesity rate of almost 20 percent, which is lower than the U.S. average of about 34 percent.
“We are increasingly finding that obesity is a reflection of economic conditions,” said Adam Drewnowski, PhD, University of Washington professor of epidemiology. “You see higher rates in lower income neighborhoods, poor zip codes, cheaper, fast-food restaurants, and, yes, in downscale supermarkets as compared to places like Whole Foods.”
Prior to the SOS study, access to healthy food has been a defined mostly by geographic proximity to supermarkets. Bringing more grocery stores to low-income, high-minority or rural areas—so-called “food deserts”—is thought to improve residents’ diets and health. As a result, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services, plans to spend $400 million in 2011 to bring supermarkets to underserved areas and help convenience stores carry more fresh produce.
But factors other than supermarket access may be at play, according to the Seattle researchers. To determine the top factors, the researchers analyzed actual human behavior of more than 2,000 shoppers in the Seattle area, tracking their choice of supermarkets and comparing it to their education, income and obesity rates.
The SOS researchers found that only 15 percent of study respondents shopped at stores within their census tract. “Six out of seven people shopped for food outside their immediate neighborhood,” Drewnowski said in a release. “The closest supermarket for most people was less than a mile away, but people chose the market that was more than three miles away.”
The researchers are exploring the factors—price, higher-quality food options, age, ethnicity, transportation access and more—that guide supermarket choice. Although the researchers do not claim that Seattle mimics shopping patterns of other cities, Seattle makes an interesting case study of food-access issues. The city is well-stocked with healthy, affordable foods and all the supermarkets studied—even the lower-cost stores—had “wide availability of fresh, wholesome foods, including vegetables and fruit,” according to the researchers. Yet, the obesity rates varied greatly between shoppers of upscale versus downscale stores.
“I think price is a factor, but there are also psychological factors that stop people from buying natural, healthy foods when cheaper, filling options are available,” said Drewnowski. “So merely having a supermarket around is not the magic bullet it is supposed to be.”