Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and as a whole, Americans are nearly 25 pounds heavier than they were forty years ago. The situation is much the same in Canada. Diets of high calorie processed foods are the source of most of this excess. However, for two reasons, this unhealthy consumption is not always by choice.

First, in some communities – known as food deserts – processed foods are often all that is available. Second, in these and other communities, there is a preference for fast foods that needs to be unlearned.

Food Deserts

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”Food deserts tend to be in low-income communities without full-scale grocery stores but with plenty of cheap, fast food and convenience store outlets.

Lack of transportation to get to grocery stores that sell healthy foods at affordable prices contributes to the food desert problem. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study, food desert residents must travel nearly five miles for supermarket-access. That means food choice is often limited to costly convenience store fare or fast food, both usually full of fat, salt and sugar. This makes residents especially susceptible to obesity and other health conditions that poor diets fuel like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Fast Food Cultural Dominance

Healthy food accessibility is only part of the problem. A recently published report in the Archives of Internal Medicine finds that even when grocery stores are nearby, fast food often remains a dietary staple. Every day, at least one quarter of all Americans eat a fast food meal. A study of more than 5,000 residents in Birmingham (AL), Chicago (IL), Minneapolis (MN) and Oakland (CA) found that fast food restaurants have a dietary significance radius of two miles. This means that, due to habit and taste preference, people accustomed to fast food will oftentimes seek it regardless of what else is around.

In poorer neighborhoods, the problems of food deserts and fast food dominance are compounded by a lack of safe exercise and recreational opportunities.

To break this cycle of reliance, improved health education and healthy food access are required. Neither is easy to achieve, but projects like community gardens, farmers’ markets and cultural events that highlight healthy foods specific to a neighborhood’s ethnic population encourage people to get out and about and to improve their diets. As with any product, when people identify with healthy food, they are more inclined to seek it out.

While personal choice is always part of the nutrition-and-health equation, cultural constraints and actual availability of healthy food are sometimes controlling factors. Appreciating the context in which personal choice is exercised is a big part of overcoming the obesity epidemic./p>

[Janet Lubman Rathner]