MSNBC has repackaged the results of the Seattle Obesity Study–by the University of Washington’s Adam Drewnowski, who studies relationships between social class and obesity–to make it sound a little sexier, but in a way that also obscures the study’s findings.
MSNBC’s headline is “Pricey grocery stores attract skinniest shoppers,” and the story contains a sidebar that lists grocery stores by customer obesity (a BMI of over 30): just 4 percent of Whole Foods customers are obese, followed by Met Market (8), PCC (12), QFC (17), Fred Meyer (22), Safeway (24), and Albertsons (38).
This is actually the opposite of what study wants to show you, which is that poverty drives the food choices that result in weight gain, not the stores you shop at.
The UW release says simply: “Obesity remains an economic issue.” (And there’s no photo of a slender blonde loading groceries into her SUV, there’s bar graphs.) The study itself is titled, “The Supermarket Gap,” and follows up on earlier research that found that “people who lived near supermarkets consumed more fresh produce and were less likely to be obese.” Fine, everyone thought, we’ll just build more supermarkets in so-called “food deserts” (places served only by convenience stores or fast food).
What UW researchers have found, though, is that most people don’t shop at the nearest supermarket. “Six out of seven people shopped for food outside their immediate neighborhood,” Drewnowski reported. “The closest supermarket for most people was less than a mile away, but people chose the market that was more than three miles away.” Behavioral economics to the rescue!
What seems like a more likely driver than proximity is calories-per-dollar. That is, if you’re poor and trying to stretch your grocery budget, you may be more likely to buy cheap, filling, ready-to-eat foods than baby carrots and celery. Albertsons can put out all the ““better-for-you” food tags they want, their customers want something to microwave and tuck into, and they will drive extra miles to Albertsons for a good price on good-to-go meals.
So the major finding is that availability of healthy foods–fresh fruits and produce, unprocessed staples–isn’t as big a factor as the price. (And the effort it takes to prepare them–time as you know is money). Whole Foods shoppers’ skinniness likely has less to do with Whole Foods than with wealthier, well-educated people tending to living healthier lifestyles, having the time and money to prepare good meals, and not having to worry about going hungry the few days before the next paycheck.