Women

05.16.13

Study: Living Near Fast Food Ups Risk Of Obesity

A new study of African-American women finds that BMI decreases with distance from fast-food chains.

If you're a black woman, new research shows that just living near a McDonald’s or Burger King can up your chances of having a higher BMI and put you at risk for diabetes and cancer.

A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health that was released on Thursday studied a group of nearly 1,400 African-Americans in Texas—about 75 percent of them women—and found that individuals who lived closer to fast-food restaurants had a higher BMI (body mass index) than their peers who lived farther from fast food.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and led by Dr. Lorraine Reitzel, an associate professor in the Department of Health Disparities Research.

Reitzel told The Daily Beast that of several factors typically associated with BMI, including income, age, and physical activity, no factor was a greater indicator of high BMI than proximity to a fast-food restaurant.

She says other studies have looked at the effects of proximity of fast food to high BMI, but no studies have specifically focused on African-Americans.

"According to prior research, African-Americans, particularly women, have higher rates of obesity than other ethnic groups, and the gap is growing,” said Reitzel. “The results of this study add to the literature indicating that a person’s neighborhood environment and the foods that they’re exposed to can contribute to a higher BMI.”

Every mile that participants lived from the closest fast-food restaurant was associated with a 2.4 percent decrease in BMI.

She added that African-American women tend to have higher rates of obesity compared with both the general population and with African-American men.

A 2010 study by the Department of Health’s Office of Minority Health found that four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese and were 70 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white women.

The MD Anderson study also found that proximity to a densely populated area of restaurants is associated with higher BMIs. Every mile that participants lived from the closest fast-food restaurant was associated with a 2.4 percent decrease in BMI.

The participants—nearly 1,400 African-Americans who attend Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston—reported their eating habits and proximity to fast-food restaurants over a period of about seven months.

The church is relatively affluent, Reitzel says, but the results of the study may apply to a larger portion of the African-American population because of the population’s high church-going rate. Reitzel says she hopes the results of the study will raise awareness about health disparities and the particular set of public health problems the African-American community faces.

While Big Macs and McFlurries aren’t going anywhere, Reitzel has suggested that zoning laws and conditional-use permits be utilized to move fast food restaurants farther away from densely populated residential areas to avoid casual visits to the drive-through.

“We can make it less convenient for these restaurants to be the top choice,” Reitzel says. She says it’s the same logic that applies to preventing cigarette smoking and alcoholism.

“Communities take away liquor stores or reduce the availability of cigarettes,” she says, adding “the literature suggests that food addiction is real.”