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NLM Director’s Comments Transcript
Food Deserts, Diet & Obesity: 06/25/2012

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Greetings from the National Library of Medicine and

Regards to all our listeners!

I'm Rob Logan, Ph.D. senior staff National Library of Medicine for Donald Lindberg, M.D, the Director of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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An analysis recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds no associations among child and adolescent dietary habits, body mass index, and the types of food stores and availability of fast–food restaurants within California neighborhoods. The study also challenges some past and future research about the impact of food deserts on child obesity and dietary habits.

The authors explain the lack of nutritious foods in nearby food outlets (often in low income areas) is called a ‘food desert.’ The authors note in previous research food deserts have been linked to poor nutritional habits, and higher rates of overweight or obesity among younger area residents.

However, the current findings (based on a well-respected statewide survey of more than 13,000 Californians ages 5-11 and 12-17) suggest obesity, nutritional habits, and types of nearby food markets and restaurants may not be statistically related. The authors used data from the California Health Interview survey that asked if young persons ate fruits, vegetables, juice, soda, higher-sugar foods, and fast-food on the day before the interview. Survey respondents also self-reported their weight and height, which was used to calculate their body mass index.

The authors then used geographical data to code the types of food outlets (such as large, midsize, small food stores, and convenience markets) as well as the density of 63 major fast-food restaurants available with a distance of .1 to 1.5 miles. The latter area was coded as walking distance, or within the neighborhood where the young persons lived. The research, which was done by the RAND Corporation, was co-sponsored by the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development and the JL Foundation.

The authors write (and we quote): ‘the present study found no evidence to support the hypotheses that improved access to supermarkets, or less exposure to fast-food restaurants or convenience stores within walking distance, improves diet quality or reduces BMI (body mass index) among Californian youth’ (end of quote).

The authors explain the differences in findings between the current and previous studies may be linked to differences in research methods. The authors continue it may be difficult for future researchers to improve the assessment of possible links between neighborhood markets, obesity, and food habits because it is challenging to assess what types of food inventory area markets provide.

The authors write (and we quote): ‘categorizing food outlets by type tends to be insufficient to reflect the heterogeneity of outlets, and it is possible that more detailed measures, such as store inventories, ratings of food quality, and measuring shelf space would be more predictive for health outcomes. Unfortunately, such data are very costly and time consuming to collect and may never exist on a national scale’ (end of quote).

The authors further note the findings suggest young Californians do not always shop in their neighborhoods, and often buy food in areas further away than the .5 to 1.5 miles from their residence. The study suggests it may be more appropriate for future researchers to assess what is provided in food markets and restaurants outside a young person’s neighborhood.

In an article about the current and a similar study, The New York Times noted the findings suggest a need to reevaluate if adding supermarkets with abundant fresh fruits and vegetables as well as alternatives to fast-food restaurants impact better nutrition and weight control in low income as well as other neighborhoods. Overall, the study suggests it may be more difficult than previously hypothesized to assess and demonstrate if food deserts are linked to childhood obesity and poor diet.

Finally, the study provides a rare example where findings of no statistical significance are illuminating.

To help you encourage nutritious meals for young persons, an overview of healthy eating for kids and teens is available in the ‘start here’ section of’s child nutrition health topic page. More helpful tips that focus on child nutrition (from the American Academy of Pediatrics) are available in the ‘overviews’ section of’s child nutrition health topic page.

A similar guide for teens (also from the American Academy of Pediatrics) is available in the ‘teenagers’ section. The ‘teenagers’ section also contains a website from the Nemours Foundation that helps teens eat healthy meals at restaurants (or outside their home), which addresses some of the health and nutritional issues raised within the study.’s child nutrition health topic page additionally contains links to the latest pertinent journal research articles, which are available in the ‘journal articles’ section. Links to related clinical trials that may be occurring in your area are available in the ‘clinical trials’ section. From the child nutrition health topic page, you can sign up to receive email updates with links to new information as it becomes available on MedlinePlus.

To find’s child nutrition health topic page, type ‘child nutrition’ in the search box on’s home page, then, click on ‘Child nutrition (National Library of Medicine).’ also contains related health topic pages on: obesity in children, and food and nutrition.

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