19 Jan Shopping For Food At Walmart Not Necessarily Bad For You
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MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr. Lindsey Taillie PhD
Research Assistant Professor
Department of Nutrition
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Medical Research: What is the background for this study?
Dr. Taillie: Walmart is the US’ biggest grocer retailer. With over 50% more sales than the next largest grocery retailer, Kroger, Walmart has a major influence on what Americans buy and eat. Previous research suggests this growing dominance of Walmart could also contributing to our growing waistlines: Walmart has been linked to less healthy food purchases and higher levels of obesity. At the same time, public health scientists and advocates are also increasingly concerned about ensuring that everyone—and especially the poor—have access to healthy food stores to buy fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods.
But what’s a healthy store? Typically we think of these as traditional grocery stores and supermarkets, but not massive supercenters like Walmart (or convenience or drug stores). However, it’s very difficult to actually test how stores affect the healthfulness of our diets. For example, the reason why some food store purchases seem healthier is because more health-conscious consumers shop there to begin with, not necessarily because the food is actually healthier. Where stores choose to locate is not random, either—stores like Walmart might choose to open a store in a certain neighborhood because of other characteristics (low rent, more space, etc.), which themselves can be associated with poor diets and more obesity. People also shop at more than one type of food store, so unhealthy foods at one store might offset healthier foods purchased at another.
Medical Research: What are the main findings?
Dr. Taillie: Using a longitudinal dataset of household food purchases from 2000 to 2013, we found that it doesn’t really matter where you shop when it comes to how healthy your food is. We found that the nutritional quality of the foods purchased at Walmart used to be worse than other major chain grocers—more calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, not to mention more unhealthy foods like packaged desserts, salty snacks, and candy. But, we’ve found that once you control for this issue of who shops where, by 2013, the overall nutritional quality of foods purchased at Walmart was virtually identical to those purchased at other stores. There were income disparities in the nutritional quality of foods purchased at other food retailers, but not at Walmart, and these persisted over time.
Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?
Dr. Taillie: Contrary to expectations, shopping for food at Walmart is not necessarily worse for you. However, where you shop is only one of many factors that goes into buying healthy foods and eating a nutritious diet. It is essential to create an environment where healthy foods are not only affordable, available, and accessible, especially for people with less time or fewer resources to spend on food. However, these changes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what needs to be done to get people eating better. Broader policy-level change will be needed—from reintroducing cooking classes in schools to considering other mechanisms like sugary beverage taxes—to help people learn healthy preferences while also creating a food system that supports and enables healthier choices. The bottom line: patients should be mindful of making healthy choices wherever they shop for groceries.
Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Dr. Taillie: We need a better understanding of what elements within food retailers can make healthier choices the easier choices, as well as what policy options can support these choices. It’s clear that it’s not enough to simply provide access to fruits and vegetables. A food systems approach will be needed to understand the best strategies—or more likely, the combination of strategies— needed to reduce barriers to buying and eating healthy foods, especially in low-income populations.
Dr. Lindsey Taillie PhD (2016). Shopping For Food At Walmart Not Necessarily Bad For You