Can where you live influence what you eat?

Fast food

Rio de Janeiro by Dylan Passmore. CC BY-NC 2.0

The food stores we are exposed to in our living environment can be a powerful influence on our eating behaviours. In this article, C-PAN post-doctoral research fellow Dr Lukar Thornton explains why planning agencies should be taking the food environment into account if they are serious about improving the health of people living in their neighbourhood.

There are numerous factors that influence the foods people choose to purchase and consume. Beyond individual preferences, the environment is a key aspect that influences choice through the number and types of food stores to which people are exposed on a daily basis.

Daily exposure to a range of food stores means that the environment provides multiple opportunities for people to purchase both healthy and unhealthy foods. Using fast food as an example, greater environmental opportunities (such as being exposed to more fast food stores) makes fast food purchasing more convenient.

Access to a greater variety of fast food stores has been linked to increased consumption of fast foods. This is of particular concern given that research has also shown that individuals in low-income neighbourhoods consume fast food more frequently than those in high-income neighbourhoods, and low-income neighbourhoods often have higher densities of fast food outlets.

Planning controls to limit the development of new fast food restaurants in local communities are often limited. Traditionally, proposals for new developments must be opposed on the grounds of factors such as aesthetics, signage, parking, and traffic.

There is a growing push in Australia for planning agencies to consider the health impact of new fast food stores in an effort to combat adverse health conditions, particularly in neighbourhoods with high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage and nearby to schools. This was recently demonstrated in a case in South Australia where health impact was considered as part of the grounds for opposition to the opening of a new McDonald’s restaurant nearby to a school.

Internationally, we find examples where health has been a key factor behind some planning decisions. In 2008 a bill was passed by the City of Los Angeles that prohibited the opening of new fast food restaurants in low-income areas. Other examples exist in the United Kingdom where a local council banned hot food takeaway shops from opening within 400 metres of schools’ youth facilities and parks in an effort to combat childhood obesity.

Councils who do oppose the development of fast food outlets increasingly recognise that they cannot rely on traditional planning controls to stop the development of new outlets and are instead being forced to explore a range of other possible options including increased land rates and taxes on such outlets. Whilst it is difficult to envisage the success or otherwise of health grounds being utilised in planning approvals, it is encouraging to see local governments being proactive to ensure every effort is made to safeguard local environments from over-abundance of opportunities to engage in unhealthy eating behaviours.

Key messages

  • The food stores we are exposed to can influence our eating behaviours.
  • Having greater access to fast food stores is linked to a greater purchasing frequency of fast foods.
  • Planning laws to oppose the development of new fast food outlets are currently limited.

Dr Lukar Thornton
Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research (C-PAN)
Deakin University


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