Cancer Mortality in Areas With More Fast Food

Communities with easy access to fast food were 77% more likely to have high levels of obesity-related cancer mortality, based on data from a new cross-sectional study of more than 3,000 communities.

Although increased healthy eating has been associated with reduced risk of obesity and with reduced cancer incidence and mortality, access to healthier eating remains a challenge in communities with less access to grocery stores and healthy food options (food deserts) and/or easy access to convenience stores and fast food (food swamps), Malcolm Seth Bevel, PhD, of the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, and colleagues, wrote in their paper, published in JAMA Oncology.

In addition, data on the association between food deserts and swamps and obesity-related cancer mortality are limited, they said.

“We felt that the study was important given the fact that obesity is an epidemic in the United States, and multiple factors contribute to obesity, especially adverse food environments,” Dr. Bevel said in an interview. “Also, I lived in these areas my whole life, and saw how it affected underserved populations. There was a story that needed to be told, so we’re telling it,” he said in an interview.

In a study, the researchers analyzed food access and cancer mortality data from 3,038 counties across the United States. The food access data came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Environment Atlas (FEA) for the years 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2020. Data on obesity-related cancer mortality came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the years from 2010 to 2020.

Food desert scores were calculated through data from the FEA, and food swamp scores were based on the ratio of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to grocery stores and farmers markets in a modification of the Retail Food Environment Index score.

The researchers used an age-adjusted, multiple regression model to determine the association between food desert and food swamp scores and obesity-related cancer mortality rates. Higher food swamp and food desert scores (defined as 20.0 to 58.0 or higher) were used to classify counties as having fewer healthy food resources. The primary outcome was obesity-related cancer mortality, defined as high or low (71.8 or higher per 100,000 individuals and less than 71.8 per 100,000 individuals, respectively).

Overall, high rates of obesity-related cancer mortality were 77% more likely in the counties that met the criteria for high food swamp scores (adjusted odds ratio 1.77). In addition, researchers found a positive dose-response relationship among three levels of both food desert scores and food swamp scores and obesity-related cancer mortality.

A total of 758 counties had obesity-related cancer mortality rates in the highest quartile. Compared to counties with low rates of obesity-related cancer mortality, counties with high rates of obesity-related cancer mortality also had a higher percentage of non-Hispanic Black residents (3.26% vs. 1.77%), higher percentage of adults older than 65 years (15.71% vs. 15.40%), higher rates of adult obesity (33.0% vs. 32.10%), and higher rates of adult diabetes (12.50% vs. 10.70%).

Possible explanations for the results include the lack of interest in grocery stores in neighborhoods with a population with a lower socioeconomic status, which can create a food desert, the researchers wrote in their discussion. “Coupled with the increasing growth rate of fast-food restaurants in recent years and the intentional advertisement of unhealthy foods in urban neighborhoods with [people of lower income], the food desert may transform into a food swamp,” they said.

The findings were limited by several factors including the study design, which did not allow for showing a causal association of food deserts and food swamps with obesity-related cancer mortality, the researchers noted. Other limitations included the use of groups rather than individuals, the potential misclassification of food stores, and the use of county-level data on race, ethnicity, and income, they wrote.

The results indicate that “food swamps appear to be a growing epidemic across the U.S., likely because of systemic issues, and should draw concern and conversation from local and state officials,” the researchers concluded.

Community-level investments can benefit individual health

Dr. Bevel said he was not surprised by the findings, as he has seen firsthand the lack of healthy food options and growth of unhealthy food options, especially for certain populations in certain communities. “Typically, these are people who have lower socioeconomic status, primarily non-Hispanic Black or African American or Hispanic American,” he said “I have watched people have to choose between getting fruits/vegetables versus their medications or running to fast food places to feed their families. What is truly surprising is that we’re not talking about people’s lived environment enough for my taste,” he said.

“I hope that our data and results can inform local and state policymakers to truly invest in all communities, such as funding for community gardens, and realize that adverse food environments, including the barriers in navigating these environments, have significant consequences on real people,” said Dr. Bevel. “Also, I hope that the results can help clinicians realize that a patient’s lived environment can truly affect their obesity and/or obesity-related cancer status; being cognizant of that is the first step in holistic, comprehensive care,” he said.

“One role that oncologists might be able to play in improving patients’ access to healthier food is to create and/or implement healthy lifestyle programs with gardening components to combat the poorest food environments that their patients likely reside in,” said Dr. Bevel. Clinicians also could consider the innovative approach of “food prescriptions” to help reduce the effects of deprived, built environments, he noted.

Data provide foundation for multilevel interventions

The current study findings “raise a clarion call to elevate the discussion on food availability and access to ensure an equitable emphasis on both the importance of lifestyle factors and the upstream structural, economic, and environmental contexts that shape these behaviors at the individual level,” Karriem S. Watson, DHSc, MS, MPH, of the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., and Angela Odoms-Young, PhD, of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., wrote in an accompanying editorial.

The findings provide a foundation for studies of obesity-related cancer outcomes that take the community environment into consideration, they added.

The causes of both obesity and cancer are complex, and the study findings suggest that the links between unhealthy food environments and obesity-related cancer may go beyond dietary consumption alone and extend to social and psychological factors, the editorialists noted.

“Whether dealing with the lack of access to healthy foods or an overabundance of unhealthy food, there is a critical need to develop additional research that explores the associations between obesity-related cancer mortality and food inequities,” they concluded.

The study received no outside funding. The researchers and the editorialists had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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