How Childhood Obesity Could Be Linked With Lack Of Grocery Store Options

Convenience stores might offer a quick and cheap way for parents and kids to shop for food, but the limited healthy options in these stores contribute to childhood obesity, according to a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and DieteticsChildren in four communities in New Jersey living within a mile of convenience stores that did not carry healthier options such as different types of fruits and vegetables, lower-fat milk, and fresh or frozen meat had an 11 percent greater likelihood of having a higher body mass index over the span of two years than other children their age (via Healthline).

Researchers followed two groups of children ages 3 to 15 living in four different New Jersey cities: Newark, Camden, New Brunswick, and Trenton. They collected data on the children's weight over different times between 2009 through 2017. They also tracked data about all grocery outlets in these cities and a one-mile surrounding buffer. At the time, these cities were initiating environmental and policy changes aimed at preventing childhood obesity through community-based initiatives, including those supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children in communities with small grocery stores that carry a larger selection of healthy items tend to have a healthier weight over time, said Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, Ph.D., RD, the study's lead author and a professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. "We found that community food environment, particularly small neighborhood stores, can significantly influence children's weight status," Ohri-Vachaspati wrote.

It takes a community effort to stock healthier options, health officials say

The number and type of food outlets in a community, their hours of operation, transportation options, and economics all contribute to these findings, Dr. Ilan Shapiro, medical director of health education and wellness at AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles, told Healthline. "Parents in working-class families may be working multiple jobs, which doesn't allow time to get to a grocery store, especially if it's not located nearby and transportation is an issue," Shapiro said. "Access can be one of the largest contributors to a healthy lifestyle. Communities with more purchasing power will have more grocery store options available to them."

In addition to lower prices, junk food can be an emotional treat, Shapiro said. "Low-income families may not have the means to buy their child trending toys and technology, but a bag of chips or a candy bar that costs two dollars might bring a smile to the child's face," Shapiro told Healthline.

Dr. Alexander Lightstone Borsand, a physician with Scottsdale Lifestyle Medicine in Arizona, said the majority of available options at a convenience store also tend to be low-fiber foods, which are a leading cause of obesity. Shapiro said a multi-organizational effort in Southern California tackled a similar situation where children in underserved areas struggled with obesity. The local health department worked with convenience stores to supply fresh fruits and vegetables for display near the registers.