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‘Food Swamps’: New Danger Zone On Food Landscape

Food Deserts are geographic areas where they have little or no healthy food available. ‘Food Swamps’ offer mainly junk food. The swamps may be even more dangerous to young folks and those over 50…

Generic Fast Food Drive Thru - © CNBC.comFast Food is convenient, consistent and offers almost immediate gratification.
Too may such joints in your neighbourhood may render it a Food Swamp…

We all know by now, I think, that food deserts are places, often but not exclusively urban, where food is not available. And I mean no food at all, good or bad. Now I’m advised that the socio-groceryologists have identified another bad place on the food landscape: food swamps. As you might imagine, food swamps are regions where there may be plenty of food, but most of it is highly or ultra-processed,or ‘fast’, ‘junk’ food.

Along with fast food joints, food swamps also contain more than their share of convenience stores and fewer full-service grocery stores and farmer’s markets than they should have, to support healthy consumer food choices and support healthy eating habits.

Food swamps attract young and old

Food swamps offer the quick gratification of fast food, convenience, and the basic food qualities folks who seek the foregoing also love: lots of added salt, sugar and fat.

Setting aside the obvious attraction to kids and young adults of such dietary madhouses, swamps also attract older folks who also want convenience and strong flavour experiences (to compensate for fading senses) associated with excess salt, sugar and fat. As often as not, older folks are also creatures of habit who appreciate dining opportunities with set operating hours, fairly set menus and predictable, fairly stable prices.

And lest we forget, older folks often adopt a neighbourhood coffee shop or fast food eatery is a meeting point; a geographical hub where they regularly interact with their friends and peers. Having such a hub is very important, especially for older folks who are widowed or otherwise isolated in their lives.

Folks in food swamps were clearly at risk

“An unhealthy diet negatively impacts blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels that increases the risk of stroke,” lead author of a new study on food swamps Dixon Yang, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, said in a statement.

One of the first things Yang’s team did was perform a secondary analysis of data collected from 2010 to 2016 on 17,875 adults. The data came from the University of Michigan’s ongoing Health and Retirement Study, which recruits participants across the U.S. to explore the challenges and opportunities associated with aging.

The researchers then cross-referenced this information with food environment census information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to create a so-called ‘retail food environment index’ (RFEI). Unhealthy food options included convenience stores, fast-food and full-service restaurants, while healthy food retailers included grocery stores, farmer’s markets and specialized food stores, according to the report.

What they found

Locales with ratios of 5 or more poor choices to every one good one were designated food swamps.

Those who lived in the neighborhoods with fewer healthy options had a 13 percent greater risk of stroke compared to residents of areas that ranked below five, the authors found.

Older folks who lived in food swamps ran a significantly higher risk suffering strokes.

On top of the foregoing… “Prior research has shown that a retail food environment index ratio of five or higher may predict the prevalence of people with obesity in a neighborhood,” Yang said. That means that one’s RFEI could also help identify communities were folks were most prone to suffer other diseases and conditions associated with obesity.

My take

Sounds to me like calculating one’s RFEI is almost as important as calculating one’s BMI in providing an overall picture of a subject’s health and likely outcomes. We’ll keep an ear open for future RFEI news…

~ Maggie J.