BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Researchers at the University at Buffalo
conducting a neighborhood-scaled exploratory study that tested the
association between the food environment, the built environment and
women's body mass index (BMI) have found that women with homes
closer to a supermarket, relative to a convenience store, had lower
BMIs, and that the greater the number of restaurants within a five
minute walk of a woman's home, the higher her BMI.
The study, "Food Environment, Built Environment and Women's BMI:
Evidence from Erie County, New York," involved 172 participants and
was published in the April issue of the Journal of Planning
Education and Research. It was led by Samina Raja, PhD, UB
professor of urban and regional planning.
The study team comprised several UB researchers: Li Yin, PhD,
assistant professor of urban and regional planning; James Roemmich,
PhD, associate professor of pediatrics; Leonard Epstein, PhD,
professor of pediatrics; Changxing Ma, PhD, assistant professor of
biostatistics; and graduate students Pavan Yadav and Alex Brian
"In particular, three findings are significant," says Raja.
"First, a greater number of restaurants within a five-minute
walk of a subject's house was associated with a greater BMI,
holding other factors constant," she says.
"Second," she says, "on average, women who live within relative
proximity to supermarkets and grocery stores (as opposed to
convenience stores) tend to have lower BMIs.
"Third, and perhaps most important," Raja says, "the interaction
of the food environment and the built environment in a neighborhood
carries significant consequences for obesity. For example, a
diverse land-use mix, while beneficial for promoting physical
activity, is tied to a net increase in BMI when that land is
dominated by restaurants."
She says future research on the built environment and health
must take into account the role of the food environment on women's
health, and the study offers suggestions for how food environments
may be improved using planning strategies.
Raja is a nationally regarded community-based scholar in the
fields of food security planning and community health whose work
supports and is supported by UB's Civic Engagement and Public
Policy research initiative.
She points out that more than one-third of U.S. adults were
reported to be obese in 2006, with the prevalence of obesity
slightly greater among women than men.
"The prevalence of obesity is a significant public health
concern because it places indi¬viduals at a risk for a variety
of diseases," she says, "and the role of environmental factors in
contributing to obesity has received a lot of attention. We have
attempted here to explain the paradox of high BMI rates among women
living in highly walkable inner city neighborhoods.
Raja says the study has several limitations, among them, the
fact that the researchers did not know where their subjects shopped
for food, only what outlets were closest geographically. The also
were not able to classify restaurants based on their quality --
fast-food and sit-down restaurants were treated as a single
category, even though they know that quality varies widely across
different types of restaurants.
"The study raises several questions to be addressed in future
research," she says, "and suggests that innovative research designs
will be necessary to develop greater evidence of causality --
perhaps longitudinal studies that look at how moving one's
residence (thus changing exposure to a particular food, food type
or built environment) affects physical activity, eating behavior
and health outcomes."
The study identifies planning strategies and tools available to
improve community food and built environments to support healthy
"Comprehensive plans, regulatory mechanisms and financial
incentives can be used individually or in concert to improve food
environments," the study says, and cites recent efforts in Madison
and Dane County, Wis.; Marin County, Calif.; Harrison County,
Miss.; special regulations adopted in New York City that offer
zoning incentives (e.g. allowing denser development and reduction
in parking requirements) for development projects that dedicate a
greater store floor area to fresh foods in underserved
neighborhoods; and Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing
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