Obesity Challenge is Bigger Than One Study

Articles
May 27, 2010

Obesity Challenge is Bigger Than One Study

Are food shoppers in Seattle sleepless over new National Institutes of Health research findings that suggest obese people frequent lower-cost markets and thin people flock to the likes of Whole Foods?

Are food shoppers in Seattle sleepless over new National Institutes of Health research findings that suggest obese people frequent lower-cost markets and thin people flock to the likes of Whole Foods?

We doubt it.

While the study may reinforce observations and common beliefs, it doesn’t go far enough to satisfy our appetite at The Lempert Report for why this is happening, if indeed it is around the country. The narrow study examined 2,001 shoppers in the Seattle area between December 2008 and March 2009 and correlated their choice of supermarkets with their education and income levels and obesity rates, reported MSNBC. The University of Washington researchers (funded by NIH) determined obesity simply by asking people their height and weight, and then calculating body mass index (BMI).

Their primary conclusion: nearly 40% of shoppers at lower-priced stores were obese (BMI greater than 30) compared with about 4% at higher-priced supermarkets – a near tenfold multiplier.  

In Seattle’s three lowest-priced chains, including Albertsons, an average market basket of food cost $225 to $280 and the shoppers’ obesity rates ranged no lower than 22%. At higher-priced operators such as Whole Foods, an average market basket of food cost $370 to $420 and the shoppers’ obesity rates rose no higher than 12%, according to the network’s account.

The Lempert Report believes, however, there is too much unexamined to use these conclusions as a foundation for federal ambitions such as Health Food Financing Initiatives to bring supermarkets into food deserts, or industry goals that could help improve the day-to-day nutrition of all economic classes.

We find the dollar comparisons confusing and possibly meaningless unless the items in the food baskets are identical. We doubt the items are identical or that price is the point.  If, as we believe, food choices are different, we’d like to know how different they are because the study itself acknowledges accessibility to healthy foods in all of the stores. It would be intriguing to explore with the study participants what their triggers are for the purchase of healthy and unhealthy foods. We acknowledge some of the differences noted by lead researcher Professor Adam Drewnowski relate to store location, since upscale neighborhoods often translate to healthier shoppers.

Other elements to explore: Familiarity with foods that people may not have been exposed to in their households. How could they be expected to risk the costly purchase of healthy foods they may not know how to prepare or enjoy? That could be part of an obesity study, along with affordability, proximity and more.  

Right now, everyone shares some blame for obesity – consumers who can help themselves, food manufacturers that use less costly ingredients, less healthy preparation processes and misleading label claims, and retailers that steer shoppers to the highest-profit items in their stores with less than full disclosure.

But with further studies and ample motivation, all parties can move toward an intelligent obesity resolution.