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November 8, 2013 | 3 minute read

Increasing Access to Healthier Foods in Poor and Minority Areas Leads to Healthier Eating and Weight Loss

In both urban and rural areas, improving access to healthier foods and engaging shoppers leads to healthier choices.

BETHESDA, MD – Adding new varieties of healthful foods to grocery shelves, brief interactive sessions, simple signage and educational posters are among the strategies that helped low-income minority and ethnic groups choose healthier foods and lose weight, according to research presented today at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) Annual Research Conference.

The findings can have important public health significance as low income and ethnic minority populations are at greater risk of obesity compared to non-Hispanic whites. Obesity puts people at increased risk of seven different cancers, along with heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

“We know that people are more likely to eat healthier foods if these foods are more accessible,” said Joel Gittelsohn, PhD, MSc, a medical anthropologist at Johns Hopkins University and a leading researcher in grocery store-based intervention programs.

“But accessibility includes many things, including availability, cost, location within stores and transportation to get to stores. In addition to increasing supply, you also need to increase demand for these foods, by promotions and education.”

Gittelsohn’s new study took place in Navajo Nation, an area that spans several states in the Southwest US. The 14-month study divided the area into 10 regions that included markets and convenience stores then implemented changes to half.

Changes to the regions included: Navaho health workers leading taste tests with shoppers, shelf labels promoting healthy food choices, and stocking new fruits. Radio ads highlighted the link between obesity and type 2 diabetes, a disease prevalent among American Indians. A sample of shoppers answered a series of questions at the start and end of the study, and were measured for BMI.

When compared to the regions without changes, residents who were most exposed to the healthier foods and other changes had significantly lower BMI, a measure of body weight.

“We’ve seen interventions can really make a difference in what shoppers’ purchase, In this study I was happily surprised to see decreases in BMI among those who were most exposed to the healthier eating intervention.”

The study adds to Gittelsohn’s research in both city neighborhoods and rural settings on how to help shoppers make healthier choices. His research has shown, for example, that having simple shelf labels on the healthier food choices can make a real difference.

“Basic health messaging does work. We’ve experimented with more complex shelf labels, and that isn’t as effective as the simple labels that say ‘lower in sugar’ or ‘higher in fiber’,” said Gittelsohn. “The goal is to promote healthy food choices to reduce risk for diet related chronic diseases and there are many strategies that we have seen work.”

To the Editors

Relevant Study:

Joel Gittelsohn, Elizabeth M. Kim, Siran He, and Marla Pardilla. “A Food Store–Based Environmental Intervention Is Associated with Reduced BMI and Improved Psychosocial Factors and Food-Related Behaviors on the Navajo Nation. J. Nutr. September 1, 2013 vol. 143 no. 9 1494-1500

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