Does Living Near Fast Food Restaurants Increase Your Risk of Obesity?

Research looking at African Americans in Houston finds a significant correlation.

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Just as there are "food deserts" in American cities with a shortage of full-service grocery stores, many neighborhoods suffer from a parallel (if related) problem: an oversupply of fast food. In these places, drive-throughs, burger joints and fried-fish chains cluster shoulder-to-shoulder on busy thoroughfares. So what happens if you live near one of these fast-food meccas?

In many ways, where you live is a significant determinant of your health, influencing whether you have opportunities for exercise, or sources of healthy food, or access to health care. It makes sense to wonder: Would all of that fried food (and the allure of a fast and affordable dinner at the end of a hectic day) eventually come to impact your health, too?

We'll pause here to emphasize that the following research proves no causal connection between burger proximity and body weight. But a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health does find some strong correlations: African-American adults in Houston who live closer to fast food restaurants were found to have higher Body Mass Indexes. And the link was particularly strong for lower-income people.

Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center studied about 1,400 adults from a local Methodist church, most of them female and well-educated, and referenced their home addresses against the proximity and density of nearby fast food restaurants. The study controlled for other factors that might impact BMI, like gender, age, education, employment status, and time spent watching TV. The researchers then measured the density of restaurants within half a mile, one mile, two miles and five miles of a person's home. Within a two-mile radius, the data suggested that the higher the fast-food density, the higher the BMI (the five-mile radius, not surprisingly, showed no relationship).

Conversely, each additional mile a subject lived from the nearest fast food restaurant was associated with a drop in BMI of 2.4 percent. As the researchers write:

Thus, results for the sample as a whole suggested that the presence of even a single [fast food restaurant] in close proximity to the home might be enough to influence BMI, although longitudinal studies are needed with attention to dietary intake and FFR patronization to draw definitive conclusions. Relations between FFR proximity and BMI might reflect that only a single FFR is needed to purchase fast food, and the closer a FFR is to the home, the less the cost in effort (time and distance traveled) needed to patronize it.

This study does not mean that whites or Hispanics or other groups may not also experience a link between fast food proximity and Body Mass Index. Rather, the study focused specifically on a sample of the black community given nationwide racial disparities in obesity rates and related health complications. Previous research also suggests that fast food restaurants cluster in higher densities in black communities than predominantly white ones, and that minorities may be more likely to consume fast food when it's available to them.

These latest findings among low-income people are particularly noteworthy: For them, fast food may be the best option available. As the researchers hypothesize:

Because fast food is particularly affordable, it might have greater appeal among individuals with limited funds devoted to satisfying dietary needs. For these individuals, a greater number of FFRs around the home might make the consumption of fast food convenient in the context of their daily travels, or might represent ready destinations for socialization with friends who live nearby. Perhaps the greater number of FFRs functioned as a cue for the craving of calorie-dense foods among those who tend to patronize FFRs.

Top image: Andrei Zarubaika/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.