July 18, 2024

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Masters of Health

How the food environment impacts dietary choices

How the food environment impacts dietary choices

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New research examines how various factors in one’s food environment affect food consumption and obesity. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
  • A healthy diet is essential to good health.
  • Multiple factors influence people’s diet choices, including food environment and socioeconomic and behavioral factors.
  • A recent study finds that access to grocery stores and fast food, education level, and income impact fruit and vegetable consumption and obesity levels.

Balanced, nutritional diets are an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Researchers are still uncovering which factors contribute to dietary choices.

A recent observational study published in Nature Communications examines several environmental factors that may impact people’s food choices.

The authors conclude that these factors have different levels of influence among different sections of the population.

A healthy diet is critical to good health. While experts constantly evaluate the best dietary practices, there are several general components to a healthy diet.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a healthy diet should include the following elements:

  • five portions or 400 grams (g) of fruits and vegetables daily
  • legumes, nuts, and whole grains
  • limited amounts of fat
  • limited quantities of added sugar

Different people have different food needs. It might help to talk with a doctor or dietitian to develop suitable meal plans.

Healthy diets also decrease people’s risk for specific health problems, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Researchers are constantly trying to understand what factors influence people’s food choices. Then, it’s possible to modify these factors to steer people toward healthier food choices.

Investigating dietary choices can be complex; study author Tim Althoff explained to Medical News Today:

“Studying diets is challenging and often restricted to small sample sizes, single locations, and by people’s recall of what they ate. This has made it challenging to compare diets across the United States and has led to mixed results on the impact of the food environment.”

Multiple factors influence food choices, including cultural backgrounds and lifestyles. Environmental factors also affect people’s diet, including their access to healthy or unhealthy food options.

This study sought to examine how the following factors influenced people’s weight, their consumption of fruits and vegetables, and fast food and soda consumption.

  • access to grocery stores
  • access to fast food restaurants
  • education level
  • income level

The scientists used smartphone app food logs to study food choices in a large and diverse sample size. The study included 1,164,926 participants from all across the U.S. The authors collected data over 7 years.

Tim Althoff explained the benefits of this data collection method to MNT:

“This study leverages the fact that many people take detailed notes on their diets through smartphone apps. We studied 2.3 billion smartphone food logs across more than 9,800 U.S. zip codes and demonstrated that these data can be used to study diet across the population.”

The authors compared their study population to nationally representative survey data. They gathered demographic and socioeconomic factors from Census Reporter.

Overall, the scientists found that higher education levels, increased access to grocery stores, and reduced access to fast food had associations with:

  • a higher intake of fruits and vegetables
  • a lower intake of soda and fast food
  • a lower prevalence of obesity and overweight

Next, the scientists assessed the impact of each of these factors among white, Black, and Hispanic populations, individually. The associations varied slightly between these groups.

For example, researchers found that higher income levels were associated with lower consumption of fruits and vegetables, higher obesity, and higher fast-food consumption among Black populations.

However, they found that higher education levels and greater access to grocery stores had associations with higher fruit and vegetable consumption.

In contrast, higher income levels among Hispanic populations led to a higher intake of fruits and vegetables. The associations were weaker among white populations.

The authors outline their findings regarding grocery store access:

“[H]igh grocery store access has a significantly larger association with higher fruit and vegetable consumption in zip codes with predominantly Hispanic populations (7.4{6f90f2fe98827f97fd05e0011472e53c8890931f9d0d5714295052b72b9b5161} difference) and Black populations (10.2{6f90f2fe98827f97fd05e0011472e53c8890931f9d0d5714295052b72b9b5161} difference) in contrast to zip codes with predominantly white populations (1.7{6f90f2fe98827f97fd05e0011472e53c8890931f9d0d5714295052b72b9b5161} difference).”

Educational levels affected healthy food choices across all groups. Higher education has links to higher consumption of fruits and vegetables and lower levels of obesity.

The study did have limitations. Because of the nature of the study, researchers could not determine a causal relationship between the factors they examined. The data collected relied on self-reporting through a mobile app, which can lead to inaccuracies.

The authors also recognize that their sample was an imperfect representation of the U.S. population. Their sample was impacted by who was more likely to use the app, typically women and people with higher income levels.

Tim Althoff noted to MNT that “Data from smartphone applications can have serious limitations in terms of its biases and quality. Our study provides extensive validation that these data [correlate highly] with existing gold-standard methods in the field.”

“However,” he continued, “it is much more scalable, and an exciting implication for research is that these methods could enable public health research at an unprecedented scale and granularity.”

For the future, the authors hope scientists will conduct more longitudinal rather than cross-sectional studies and include more individual-level data.

Overall, the study indicates that improving people’s access to food and increasing education can help people make healthier food choices. But the focus of interventions and the plan might need to change in specific sub-populations.