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Study Links Availability of Supermarkets To Disparities in Diet, Illness

Study Links Availability of Supermarkets To Disparities in Diet, Illness


A new study looks at what influences the availability of supermarkets has on disparities in diet and illness within certain communities.

According to the new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health study, Black Americans’ fruit and vegetable intake increased by 32 percent for each additional supermarket in the neighborhoods where they lived. White Americans’ fruit and vegetable consumption, however, increased by 11 percent with the presence of one or more supermarket in their neighborhoods, the study showed.

“We don’t know why we saw a larger influence of supermarkets on the diets of Black Americans compared to White Americans,” says Dr. Kimberly Morland of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. “Based on our previous research showing a lack of private transportation in predominantly Black neighborhoods, we suspect that White Americans may have a larger geographic area in which to select places to patronize. We believe these neighborhood differences may account in part for disparities in diet and illness.”

Morland, who led the study, conducted it as part of her doctoral dissertation in epidemiology at UNC. She joined Mt. Sinai in July as assistant professor of epidemiology in the school’s community and preventive medicine department after completing her doctorate.

A report on the findings appears in the November issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Co-authors are Dr. Steven B. Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at UNC, and Dr. Ana Diez Roux, assistant professor of general medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and Mailman School of Public Health.

The study relied on data generated by the UNC-based Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, a large, long-term population-based investigation of hardening of the arteries with extensive information on subjects’ dietary intakes, among other characteristics, Morland said.

Detailed information on the types and amounts of foods eaten from questionnaires completed by 10,623 study participants was used in the analysis, as were details about the availability of supermarkets, grocery stores and fast-food and full-service restaurants in the neighborhoods where they lived, she said.

Among the findings were that five times more supermarkets were located in “census tracts” where White participants lived compared to Black participants, Morland said. Only 8 percent of the 2,392 Black participants lived in a neighborhood with at least one supermarket as compared to 31 percent of Whites.

“Even after controlling for education and income, a higher proportion of Black Americans living in census tracts with at least one supermarket reported meeting dietary guidelines for fruits and vegetables than did Black Americans living in census tracts with no supermarkets,” she said.

“Part of the significance of this study is that it promotes an environmental understanding of nutrition instead of just holding people responsible individually for what they eat,” says Wing, who was Morland’s adviser. “In some ways, we in public health have tended to blame the victim. This work shows that if you don’t live in an area where it’s possible to have easy access to reasonably priced, nutritious foods, then it’s not your fault that you’re not eating as healthfully as people are in other areas.”

Support for the study came from the UNC School of Medicine Women’s Health Research Grant, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

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