Food Deserts Increase Risk of Heart Disease, New Study Shows

food deserts lead to millions not getting access to fresh produce

Living in poor neighborhoods is a health risk, according to a new study that found a correlation between people who live in food deserts and early indicators of heart disease.

The Michigan-based researchers linked the prevalence of the buildup of coronary calcium in residents of poorer neighborhoods throughout the United States to the lack of healthy food choices in these neighborhoods.

“Finding that the density of healthy food stores was the only factor among those tested that consistently was related to slowing the progression of coronary calcium build-up was interesting in that we didn’t see the same relation with other neighborhood features,” lead author Jeffrey Wing told Reuters Health.

These other features examined in the study included availability of recreational facilities, walking environments, and social environments, none of which had a direct correlation with the buildup of coronary calcium in study participants.

Six thousand adults from a variety of ethnic backgrounds underwent CT scans for coronary artery calcium at least twice over the course of the study, once at the beginning and once 12 months later. Almost 90 percent of participants had a third scan about three to four years later. People with healthy food stores within a mile of their homes were found to have slower coronary artery calcium buildup than those who lived further from fresh food sources.

Increased coronary calcium is a marker that can lead to heart attacks and strokes, but does not necessarily secure this fate for patients. “Coronary calcium, as we used it, was a marker for subclinical disease,” Wing explained.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for one in four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is not the first study to find a link between poor neighborhoods and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, according to Wing. It is, however, the first time that researchers have been able to hone in on a reason that those in poorer neighborhoods are more susceptible.

“Researchers don’t have one consistent way of measuring access to fresh food and that can make it difficult to come up with a good estimate,” said co-lead author Ella August.

Food deserts are areas that lack accessibly grocery stores, farmers markets, and other healthy food providers, limiting access to fresh produce and other healthy foods. The USDA defines a “low-access community” or food desert as a community within which at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census population lives more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (or more than 10 miles in rural areas). An estimated 23 million Americans live in food deserts.

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Produce shopping image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.