NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Living close to supermarkets and grocery stores did not mean that urban dwellers ate more fruits and vegetables, or had a healthier overall diet, according to a U.S. study.
Having more fast-food restaurants nearby, though, did mean that low-income men ate at the chain restaurants more often, the study in Archives of Internal Medicine said.
Researchers and policymakers think "food deserts" -- poor neighborhoods with few or no healthy food options -- may be linked to the obesity epidemic. The problem hasn't been easy to solve, however, especially because supermarkets and health-food stores are reluctant to open branches in low-income areas.
But the link between food access and what people eat is complicated, said study author Penny Gordon-Larsen, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"It's not simply enough to introduce a grocery store," she told Reuters Health.
"Our findings provide some evidence for zoning restrictions on fast food restaurants within 3 km of low-income residents but suggest that increased access to food stores may require complementary or alternative strategies to promote dietary behavior change," she and her colleagues wrote.
The study tracked about 5,000 young adults living in four cities: Birmingham, Alabama, Chicago, Illinois, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Oakland, California.
Starting in 1985, researchers surveyed the participants every few years about their eating habits, including their intake of fruits and vegetables, and how often they visited fast-food restaurants.
At the same time, the researchers calculated how many fast-food chain restaurants, grocery stores, and supermarkets were within walking or short driving distance from each person's home.
For low-income men in the study, living close to lots of fast-food restaurants meant they ate at those restaurants more often -- but there was only a weak link for middle-income people, and no clear link for those with the highest incomes.
Though the study did not measure how many times people actually went to fast food restaurants, a past study from the same cities showed that on average, young adults visited fast food restaurants once or twice a week.
In general, having more supermarkets or grocery stores nearby did not influence how well residents followed guidelines on fruit and vegetable intake, nor how healthy their diets were overall.
It may be that there's a lot of variability in those grocery stores, including what fresh produce they sell and how expensive it is, the researchers wrote, meaning that more such stores might not have enough of an impact.
"There are a lot of reasons that food access is an issue, but it's still quite unclear as to what the actual effect (of bringing in new supermarkets) would be on people's eating habits," said Daniel Block, who studies food access and behavior at Chicago State University and wasn't involved in the study.
He suggested thinking "outside the supermarket box," suggesting community gardens as a non-traditional way of promoting healthy eating and bringing people together.
Gordon-Larsen said more research is needed to see how people make decisions about what to eat and where to buy it, but that broader efforts -- such as community education and getting stores to promote more healthy food options -- may be needed.
"We're talking about a top-to-bottom approach that would be important," she added. SOURCE: bit.ly/rdF0U6
Reporting by Genevra Pittman at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies