The number of fast-foot outlets you pass on your way in and out of work each day could be impacting your waistline, according to a new study.

In a study of hundreds of women who worked in New Orleans primary schools, a researcher from Arizona State University looked at the number of fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, grocery stores, and traditional restaurants on each individuals route to work and found that the higher the number of fast-food outlets on the journey the higher the body mass index (BMI) of the participant.

Economist Adriana Dornelles, the study’s author, speculated that the link could be due to tired workers being tempted to buy a fast-food meal on the way home instead of making the effort to cook. As fast-food restaurants tend to offer higher calorie meals with larger portions than people tend to cook for themselves at home, regularly eating at such establishments could cause people to gain weight.

The research, published in the journal PLoS One, recorded the height and weight of 710 women from 22 different schools in New Orleans in the autumn of 2006 and then again two years later. Alongside each participants personal attributes, Dornelle mapped out the various types of restaurants and food stores located within one kilometre of each person’s home, the school where they worked, and along the most direct driving route between the two locations.

After controlling for various demographic and socio-economic factors, Dornelle uncovered several patterns in the data, most significantly that people who pass more fast-food restaurants on their commute will on average have a higher BMI than their colleagues. If you extrapolate the results to an average 1.74m tall male, for each additional fast-food restaurant located within a kilometre of their commute corridor their BMI would increase by 0.8 units, which the BMI calculator for men says would equate to around 2.4kg. By contrast, the presence of such establishments within the proximity of the individual’s home or workplace had no relationship to their BMI.

From her results, Dornelle concluded: “The most important finding of the study was to establish a significant relationship between BMI and multiple food environments. In our daily lives, we are exposed to several healthy and unhealthy food choices, which has an impact on BMI. The availability and variety of fast-food restaurants along our commute create endless opportunities for a quick, cheap, and unhealthy meal, which results, on average, in higher body mass index.”

More research is needed to explore people’s food-purchasing habits along their commute and examine the health outcomes of their decisions beyond the basic BMI measure, but it is clear that for governments and other groups looking to address the rising obesity problem around the world, the accessibility of fast-food restaurants is one factor that should not be ignored.


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