Why your fast food-friendly neighbourhood is making you gain weight

Is your neighbourhood surrounded by McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Starbucks? Your waistline may be the proof of it. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

TORONTO – Is your neighbourhood surrounded by McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Starbucks? Your waistline may be the proof of it.

New Canadian research that studied the country’s neighbourhoods warns that consumers who live in fast-food dense locales may be heavier.

For every 10 additional fast food joints in your postal code, Canadians’ weight creeps up by about 2.2 pounds. But if your region is filled with sit-down, table-service restaurants, your weight drops off by about 4.4 pounds, according to a new University of Western Ontario study.

“Convenience plays a major role in the association that we have analyzed. People are becoming more and more time constrained and when fast food is cheap and easy to access I think that people consume far more frequently than they would if it was more of an effort to seek it out,” study co-author, Simon Hollands, told Global News. Holland was a student at UWO while completing the research – he’s now a senior analyst at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.

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READ MORE: What Canadians want to know about what’s in fast food meals

The research, published Wednesday afternoon, is based on national restaurant data that spanned over a decade. The researchers dug up the location of every restaurant across the country and compared the information against Statistics Canada health survey data. A representative sample of about 70,000 Canadians along with their postal code, age, sex, diet, exercise and other factors was included.

Neighbourhoods were also broken up by the first three digits of a postal code, and made up a population of roughly 10,000 people. On average, about eight fast food restaurants and 1.25 full service restaurants is in each region in the country. (These numbers increase in overpopulated, urban regions, of course.)

Even after controlling for gender, physical activity levels and other factors that toy with BMI, the scientists found a link between more fast food restaurants and an increased weight.

A couple of pounds may not sound intimidating, but UWO professor Dr. Sisira Sarma suggests the disparity is “significant.”

READ MORE: Does your BMI increase each time you eat fast food?

So what could be at play? Sarma suggests that an abundance of full service restaurants tend to be in well-off neighbourhoods – there, consumers may have a tendency to make healthier choices in other aspects of their lives as well. Sit-down restaurants also have more variety, such as salads, grilled fish and meats and a list of healthy options.

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Less affluent neighbourhoods tend to have more fast food restaurants, leaving consumers with meals that are made up with a higher calorie count, more sugar, salt and fat.

“Obesity is becoming one of the biggest health threats in Canada and during the same time period we have seen a huge rise in the fast food industry and easier access to fast food. This link seemed intuitive,” Hollands told Global News.

In his previous research, the effects were greater in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec while B.C. was the least affected. The strongest effects were in central metropolitan areas.

READ MORE: Some of the worst foods for your heart’s health

The researchers suggest that policies, such as Ontario’s call to post calorie content on menus, can help consumers make informed decisions.

“The message is that eating fast food one day doesn’t make any difference but continuously eating unhealthy food will,” Sarma said.

The duo’s full findings were published Wednesday in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

Their research only adds to a collection of findings that point to neighbourhood influences tampering with weight: earlier this year, University of Cambridge researchers found that living or working near fast food joints had a helping hand in having a higher BMI, too.

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That study was based on 5,000 people. Their height and weight was logged along with their access to fast food within a one-mile radius of their work or home address.

READ MORE: 5 healthy fast food swaps

The Cambridge research came out with two stark findings: exposure to fast food is “positively and significantly” linked to consumption of the greasy fare. And consumers with the highest levels of exposure to fast food – through work, home and the commute in between – had a BMI that’s 1.21 times greater than those who are least exposed.

Other studies have even pegged Walmart supercentres – packed with clothing, electronics and, yes, junk food – as a culprit in promoting obesity.

Hollands said he hopes his next steps could include using these data sets to look at other risk factors, such as diabetes or hypertension.

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