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Study maps fast food, health

April 29, 2008|Mary Engel | Times Staff Writer

Higher rates of diabetes and obesity occur in neighborhoods -- regardless of the residents' income, race or ethnicity -- where fast-food restaurants and convenience stores greatly outnumber grocery stores and produce vendors, according to a statewide study released today.

"One of the points that this study makes is that we can't just look at issues of weight as a personal choice," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's public health director, who was not associated with the study. "We are affected by our environment. We understand that when we're talking about air quality, but we forget it affects what we eat."

At least two of the study's recommendations -- requiring fast-food restaurants to post calorie and fat content on menu boards and placing zoning restrictions on new outlets -- have already drawn opposition from the California Restaurant Assn.

"To suggest that living near a quick-service restaurant is a health threat akin to living next to a coal plant is ludicrous," said Jot Condie, association president. "Restaurants are playing a role in making more choices available, but in the end, individuals control what, where and when they eat."

The study, by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and two nonprofit health advocacy groups, plotted demographic and health information from the center's 2005 survey of 40,000 Californians against the locations of retail food outlets. It found the average California adult lives near four times as many fast-food restaurants and convenience stores as grocery stores and produce vendors.

"We're living in a junk food jungle," said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the Davis-based California Center for Public Health Advocacy, one of the study's authors.

Obesity rates were 20% higher in neighborhoods with five or more times as many fast-food outlets as produce vendors, compared with those with three or fewer, the study found. Diabetes rates were 23% higher.

The study is expected to reinvigorate efforts to legislate good nutrition. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill requiring fast-food restaurants to post calorie and fat content, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. The study can be found at www.publichealth advocacy.org

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mary.engel@latimes.com

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