Big Box Stores and Fast Food: Are They Expanding More Than Our Shopping Options?

Did you know that living near big-box retailers and certain types of restaurants can significantly impact your personal health and weight? Research at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University reveals that having stores like Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s Wholesale, as well as fast-food and full-service restaurants in your neighborhood, may increase your risk of obesity and related health problems.

Why It Happens

“People are doing a lot of eating,” says researcher Charles Courtemanche. “But as economists, we know people’s preferences don’t change overnight, so the steady rise since 1980 must involve their incentives to eat.”

In their study, the Georgia scientists analyzed 27 different economic and retail variables affecting neighborhoods and compared their influence on health and weight. They found that certain characteristics of urban, suburban, and rural areas contribute significantly to people becoming overweight.

“Changes in variables related to calorie intake collectively explain 37 percent of the rise in body mass index (BMI) rates and 43 percent of the rise in obesity,” Courtemanche says. “And our data show that the pervasive presence of supercenters, warehouse clubs, and restaurants are responsible for most of these gains.”

Simply put, the easy availability of large amounts of food in supercenters and restaurants makes it easy for people to overeat and gain weight.

Fighting Back Against Weight Gain

On the flip side, the study also discovered that having gyms in your neighborhood and an increase in the price of gasoline can reduce your risk of gaining weight. Higher gas prices encourage people to walk or bike, while gym memberships can encourage regular exercise and a focus on healthy living.

White-Collar vs. Blue-Collar Workers

Another interesting finding was that white-collar workers, who often snack at their desks while working on computers, tend to gain more weight than blue-collar workers.

“The best explanation for the difference between these workers, outside of physical movement, is time flexibility,” Courtemanche says. “White-collar workers have the flexibility to graze all day at their desks, and they can take lunch out. It all points to caloric intake.”

What You Can Do

So how can you take control of your health and weight when living near big-box stores and tempting restaurants? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Make a list before shopping. This helps you stick to healthy choices and, more importantly, prevents impulse purchases of unhealthy foods.

  2. Plan your meals for the week. Take time to plan out nutritious, delicious meals for the entire week before shopping. This allows you to avoid the convenience of fast food or restaurants when you’re unsure of what to cook at home.

  3. Limit eating out. When you do dine out, opt for healthier menu choices, and don’t hesitate to ask for substitutions to create a healthier meal.

  4. Join a local gym or engage in physical activity. Regular exercise is crucial to maintaining a healthy weight. Consider walking or biking to nearby destinations instead of driving.

  5. Minimize grazing at work. If you’re a white-collar worker, make an effort to minimize snacking at your desk, and use your lunch break to walk around and stretch your legs.

  6. Join community-sponsored wellness initiatives. Many neighborhoods offer programs that encourage healthy living, such as farmer’s markets, group exercise classes, and organized walks. Engage in these activities to help you stay motivated and connected to your community.

  7. Cook at home more often. Take advantage of being close to big-box stores by purchasing healthy, cost-effective ingredients and preparing meals at home. Cooking at home allows you to control portion sizes and the quality of ingredients used in your meals.

Understanding how your environment impacts your health and weight is the first step in making healthier choices. By taking control of your eating habits and engaging in regular physical activity, you can better maintain a healthy weight and prevent obesity-related health problems, even when living near tempting food options.