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Food deserts? In Canada, they're more like swamps

Studies find Canadians are surrounded by unhealthy eating options

Canada's food landscape is awash in swamps, or areas where there's an overabundance of unhealthy items, says a University of Saskatchewan professor.

And no matter where in Canada you live or what your income level is, accessing healthy food is not always easy, says Rachel Engler-Stringer.

``Think about your day-to-day movement throughout the neighbourhood or the city or wherever you go. How many times do you encounter chocolate bars, potato chips, pop?'' Engler-Stringer said in an interview with Canadian Press.

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``You can't even go to a car mechanic without there being chocolate bars on the counter. They're literally absolutely everywhere,” she continued.

According to Engler-Stringer, grocery stores are “heavily dominated” by unhealthy foods and lower income households in particular have trouble eating healthy because “the foods that are the cheapest sort of bang for your buck when it comes to calories and feeling full and satiated are those unhealthy foods.''

A discussion of unhealthy food landscapes in this country is explored in a new series of papers entitled ``Retail Food Environments in Canada: Maximizing the Impact of Research, Policy and Practice,'' recently released in a supplement of the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

Engler-Stringer, the supplement's co-ordinator and an author on four included papers, notes much has been written about food deserts, or areas lacking easy access to a large grocery store such as in rural and indigenous communities.

Food swamps, on the other hand, are marginalized neighbourhoods dominated by fast-food outlets and/or convenience stores with low-nutrition food. Food mirages, an even newer term, are neighbourhoods where nutritious foods are available but not affordable.

Mirages frequently occur in urban areas undergoing gentrification as well-heeled folks move into lower-income neighbourhoods. The businesses they attract may sell healthy foods, but they're at a higher price point and not affordable to the original inhabitants of those neighbourhoods, Engler-Stringer explained.

Lower-income areas also tend to have a higher concentration of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Many people in these areas don't own a car. After paying the rent, there's little left for food, even less if a taxi is required to haul groceries home. It's far easier to carry home a bag of potato chips on the bus than a bag of potatoes.

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Not helping the matter is that people are born with an innate taste for sugar and fats and develop a taste for salt as youngsters, so items like potato chips cater to that, Engler-Stringer says.

``Because they're deep-fried they have more calories, in some cases (they're) more filling and you feel satisfied from eating those, and yet they're not really what we should be eating and you're also more likely to find those on sale,'' she says.

``We're put in a difficult situation that is a whole heck of a lot worse when you're dealing with low income.''

As well, checkout aisles and grocery shelves typically place candy and sweeter cereals at kids' eye level.

``It's all these small things that individually don't mean very much, but when you add them all together they make for a very unhealthy food environment broadly. And then we blame individuals for not being able to resist and yet we're constantly surrounded by it and it triggers all our innate needs when it comes to food,” she says.

Another study in the supplement looked at the availability of fast-food restaurants in relation to the development of diabetes. It found Canadians under 65 have a greater risk of developing diabetes if they live near three or more fast-food restaurants without healthy dining options.

``It's this lack of balance. It's where you had a lot of fast food but few other options,'' says lead author Jane Polsky, a University of Toronto PhD candidate at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. ``Those (areas) had the worst profile for diabetes risks.''

Public health officials and municipal governments have discussed restricting fast-food restaurants and convenience stores near schools, says Polsky.

``What our study adds or suggests is that policies that achieve a better balance of restaurant types with more alternatives to fast food might actually go a long way towards reducing, at least in this case, the risk of diabetes,'' she says.

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