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Fast-food nation? Where you live doesn't affect what you eat, researchers say

Fast-food nation? Where you live doesn't affect what you eat, researchers say
Shoppers look at fruit on display at a produce stand set up outside St. John's Well Child and Family Center's S. Mark Taper Foundation Health Center in South Los Angeles in June 2013. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Challenging the idea that "food deserts" — those areas devoid of healthy eating options — lead to obesity, new research finds little connection between the eating habits of Angelenos and their proximity to fast-food restaurants or grocery stores.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, researchers evaluated whether there was a link between people's consumption of fast food, soda, fruits and vegetables or the number of fast-food outlets, grocery stores and convenience stores near their homes. They also looked at whether the location of these food establishments in Los Angeles influenced whether people were overweight.

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"Overall, no strong evidence emerged that local food environments affect diet or BMI of adults in Los Angeles County," the researchers wrote.

The researchers looked at 150 effects that food environments could have on people's health and found only two that were statistically significant. For the most part, there was no real connection between the location of a certain kind of food store — whether it be a fast-food outlet a block away or a grocery store a mile away — and how much soda or fruits residents ate every week, or whether they were overweight.

The researchers said that policymakers in L.A. County perhaps need to reevaluate their focus on food deserts.

One of the significant correlations that researchers found was between fast-food consumption and the number of fast-food restaurants within a three-mile radius of a person's home. They didn't find that connection when they looked at the number of fast-food restaurants within a one-mile or half-mile radius of a person's home.

The other significant finding that researchers found was a negative correlation between obesity and the number of convenience stores in a quarter-mile radius of a person's home.

"The most obvious reason is that the importance of proximity has diminished in a highly motorized society, which may be more applicable to an area such as L.A. County than, for example, New York City," the researchers wrote.

But that also means, they suggest, that the effects of food environment are subtler and more complex in L.A. County than in other parts of the country, and that lawmakers should take that into account when drafting policy. Diet is influenced by people's choices, affordability and cultural acceptance, researchers say.

The study builds on research released earlier this year that found that a ban on fast-food restaurants in South L.A. did little to curb obesity and bad eating habits in the region.

Follow @skarlamangla on Twitter for more health news.

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