Where you buy your food can contribute to risk for obesity as much as what food you buy, a new study indicates.
Akiko Hosler, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at University at Albany’s School of Public Health, released a study last week that links lower rates of obesity and shopping at ethnic markets among Schenectady’s Guyanese population. The study takes into account a neighborhood’s food environment, available shopping venues and body mass index (BMI). The study found that shopping at low cost supermarkets may be easier on the wallet, but it doesn’t have the same health benefits as purchasing foods from ethnic stores or farmers’ markets.
“Many people say the supermarket is the most important food shopping venue,” Hosler said in an interview. “It’s kind of true, but it’s not the whole story because there are so many different kinds of food stores where people would go.”
The purpose behind the study, Hosler said, was to determine if shopping at a supermarket versus other types of stores would have any influence on obesity.
She said she began looking at Schenectady in 2014, and had previously done food assessment studies in Albany, Columbia and Greene counties. The study appears in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
The Guyanese community is largely concentrated in the Mont Pleasant and Hamilton Hill neighborhoods, Hosler said. That area doesn’t have a supermarket, but it contains multiple stores where residents can shop for certain fruits, vegetables and other foods to maintain a Guyanese diet, she said.
She said the store where people prefer to shop in many cases depends on ethnicity, which explains why the Guyanese markets help support healthy diets for those residents, but not necessarily for the white or black residents in the same neighborhoods.
Members of the Guyanese community included in the study reflected a lower BMI compared to other ethnic groups, which Hosler connected to the effect of maintaining a cultural-based diet. The study also found shopping at farmers’ markets was associated with lower BMI in black adults surveyed, while frequenting food co-ops was associated with a lower BMI in the white population.
Hosler said it’s often believed that low-income areas without access to supermarkets, known as food deserts, are unhealthy because they lack a nearby shopping venue. However, the study shows shopping at a supermarket didn’t necessarily relate to healthy body weight.
For example, while supermarkets offer fresh fruits and vegetables, they also offer lots of inexpensive, unhealthy options. Hosler said the ideal scenario would be to ensure availability of both primary stores, such as supermarkets, and secondary stores, such as ethnic markets. Then consumers would have a diversity of options to maintain a healthy diet.
The study did show a connection between food pantry use and a higher BMI in black residents, who had the highest proportion of food pantry use and participation in the SNAP program, which allows users to exchange vouchers for food.
All eight farmers’ markets offered in the city of Schenectady accept fruit and vegetable vouchers, the study states.
While certain types of ethnic markets might be more expensive in some cases than brand-name supermarkets or chain stores, Hosler said people shouldn’t compromise nutritional value just to get cheaper food. In general, Hosler said, dollar stores and wholesale clubs are associated with higher BMI.
“The study isn’t really meant to tell people what to do, just to give ideas to health professionals when they advise people that food shopping behavior does matter,” Hosler said.