Living close to fast food outlets could be bad for your health

Woman boxing up a pizza

Findings from BCS70 show that living near lots of fast food outlets could increase your chances of being an unhealthy weight.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, people living close to takeaways and convenience stores were at greater risk of putting on excess pounds during the Covid-19 lockdown.

What we asked you

For the Age 46 Survey, trained nurses visited you to measure your height and weight. Then, during the pandemic, you reported your weight in a series of online surveys.

Over the years, we’ve used your height and weight to determine your Body Mass Index (BMI), which shows whether you are a healthy weight.

We have also added some publicly available information about your local area to your survey information. Researchers can use this to investigate how our neighbourhoods can impact our lives.

One team of researchers used the data on your BMI with publicly available information we had added from the UK Ordnance Survey about the different places you could buy food within your local area to examine the role of fast food.

What the research found

The researchers, based at Kingston University and Birkbeck, University of London, worked out what proportion of all the food outlets in your neighbourhoods, from supermarkets to bakeries, fishmongers, and restaurants, were ‘fast food’ outlets.

They found that people living in areas with more fast food outlets were at greater risk of being obese than their counterparts living in neighbourhoods with fewer takeaways and convenience stores. This was true even after taking account of other factors which might influence people’s food choices, such as their income.

This link between the availability of fast food outlets and people’s BMI appeared to get stronger during the first Covid-19 lockdown in April-May 2020. Compared to before the pandemic, adults living in areas with a high density of fast food outlets were at even greater risk of being obese than their counterparts. However, by September-October 2020 when the first lockdown had ended, their likelihood of being obese had reduced substantially and was lower than before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Why this research matters

Poorer areas tend to have more fast food outlets and people living in these areas are already at greater risk of poor health. This new research indicates that Covid-19 lockdown restrictions may have worsened these existing health inequalities as people in neighbourhoods with more fast food outlets were at even greater risk of obesity than their peers compared to before the outbreak.

The authors suggest that the emotional distress of the pandemic may have increased people’s chances of putting on excess weight, as ordering takeaways, consuming ready meals and comfort eating became more common.

They added that this trend may have impacted people surrounded by fast food outlets more than others. However, the study’s authors also noted that people in these areas seemed to be quick to adopt healthier diets once the lockdown ended.

This new research suggests that promotion of healthier food choices, particularly targeting more deprived areas where there are more fast food outlets available, could help with tackling health inequalities.

Read the full research report

The Impact of Fast-Food Density on Obesity during the COVID-19 Lockdown in the UK: A Multi-Timepoint Study on British Cohort Data, by Oluwanifemi Alonge, Shino Shiode and Narushige Shiode, was published in Sustainability.