Your Seattle Parks and Playgrounds

Neighborhood Obesity

Neighborhood obesity clusters have been evident to public health and obesity experts for quite some time now. Presumptions have become articles of faith to explain why some neighborhoods have persistently high rates, while neighborhoods nearby have dramatically lower rates.

A pair of new studies are challenging some of those presumptions.

In the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Ruizhu Huang and colleagues challenged the presumption that built environment is an important factor in the clustering of neighborhood obesity. Through a sophisticated spatial analysis, they demonstrated that the clusters of high BMI rates in Seattle were entirely explained by residential property values and residential density. Built environment factors such as food sources, streets, and parks were not linked to these clusters. Once again, money explains a lot.

Adam Drewnowski, who has published extensively on economic factors and obesity, was senior author on this study.

Penny Gordon-Larson was senior author on another new study, which challenges some conventional wisdom about socioeconomic status and neighborhood food environments. Over a period of 20 years this study examined the relationship between those two factors. Contrary to conventional thinking, the authors found that access to diverse sources of food, including supermarkets and non-fast food restaurants grew, irrespective of socioeconomic status. Disadvantaged neighborhood residents had access to supermarkets equal to residents of more advantaged residents.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that food deserts and other elements of the built environment may be more of a symptom of economic distress than they are causes of obesity. Many prevention efforts target these symptoms — recruiting supermarkets to food deserts, cleaning up parks, and improving the built environment to promote physical activity. Such efforts may have a good effect on quality of life.

But it may just be that their impact on obesity rates will be nil.

Click here to read the study by Huang et al and here to read the study of socioeconomic food environments.

Your Seattle Parks and Playgrounds, image © Seattle Municipal Archives / flickr

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