Supermarkets study reveals public health's close ties to the economy

2808759067_de40a54f47It turns out the pin-thin actresses I see stalking the aisles of Whole Foods in Hollywood aren't just outliers - people who shop at Whole Foods and other high-end grocery stores really are less likely to be obese than those who purchase their food staples at low-cost grocery stores, a new study has found, underlying a public health message that is key to fighting the obesity epidemic: Access to affordable healthy food is vital to creating healthy communities.

Researchers at the University of Washington examined the shoppers and shopping patterns of consumers in the Seattle area, where the obesity rate is about 20 percent (much lower than the U.S. average of 34 percent, meaning the study might not translate across the board in other areas). They found that about 4 percent of Whole Foods customers were considered obese; while 40 percent of customers of Albertsons, which offers lower prices, were obese. The study found that an average grocery basket at Whole Foods came to about $370-$420, while an average grocery basket at Albertsons cost between $225-$280.

The study's lead, Adam Drewnowski, said the results indicate that public health is intricately tied to economics. "“If people wanted a diet to be cheap, they went to one supermarket. If they wanted their diet to be healthy, they went to another supermarket and spent more. ... If you have $3 to feed yourself, your choices gravitate toward foods which give you the most calories per dollar."

The study might serve as a wake-up call to the Obama administration's Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which is pumping $400 million into improving public health and fighting obesity by bringing "grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities across America." While access is important, the study reveals that it might not be enough to convince cash-strapped consumers to buy nutritionally wholesome foods. Others argue, however, that bringing healthy options into communities where there were none before will help transform people's eating and shopping habits.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services:

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative will promote a range of interventions that expand access to nutritious foods, including developing and equipping grocery stores and other small businesses and retailers selling healthy food in communities that currently lack these options. Residents of these communities, which are sometimes called “food deserts” and are often found in economically distressed areas, are typically served by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer little or no fresh produce. Lack of healthy, affordable food options can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Whether it proves effective, the White House is right to acknowledge the effect of poverty on public health, particularly when it comes to health issues such as obesity and diabetes that are closely tied to what people eat.

Photo credit: Masahiro Ihara