We’ve all been there — you're driving home from work; it's late and you're starving, and a row of fast food places is on the horizon. The urge to stop for some junk food is pretty hard to resist.

What if there were no fast food places conveniently placed along your commute or around the corner? Chances are you and many of your neighbors would weigh less.

How Risky Is Your Food Environment?

The “food environment,” the types of food readily available to a person, both at work and at home, as well as along the daily commute, has an impact on what — and how — we eat. A team of British researchers has found that there's a relationship between the food environment and rates of obesity and body mass index (BMI).

When the route to and from work takes you past a line of fast food outlets, body mass increases.

The study looked at data from food questionnaires submitted by 5,442 working adults in the United Kingdom. The investigators, led by Thomas Burgoine of the University of Cambridge, found that exposure to fast food restaurants (pizza, burgers, and fries) was associated with an increased consumption of fast food.

While that finding may not surprise anyone, the fact that the association was strongest when takeout food was readily available near the workplace or along the commute was more unexpected. But it makes sense. You pick up donuts heading to the office, and fried chicken to feed the family on your way home.

Ways to Increase Healthy Food Options

The relationship between the food environment, including fast food, and health is complex, says Kathryn Neckerman, author of an editorial that accompanies the current study, tells TheDoctor. It takes studies such as the current one to hone in on exactly how the food environment affects health.

The information can be helpful for developing policies to improve diets. For example, in the case of the findings of this study, it appears restricting the number of takeout places around workplaces could be a highly effective way of helping large numbers of people avoid the high calorie impact that fast food generally has. It would also take away neighborhood gathering places and have a negative economic impact.

You pick up donuts heading to the office, and fried chicken to feed the family on your way home.

For these and other reasons, Neckerman, a senior research scientist at the Columbia Population Research Center at Columbia University, is not sure that this is the only thing that policymakers should consider. Not only would it be difficult to do, it is not likely to work very well.

If you look at the issue of trying to create a healthier food environment in the context of a big city like New York City, she said, it is really impossible to imagine banning takeout food, “I think we would have a very different kind of city if that were done.”

Tweaking Food Policy
Rather than getting rid of an entire sector of the economy that people want and use, Neckerman wants to see policymakers consider ways to make sure that people have the option of getting healthy food for a reasonable price at fast food places.

So, if you are stuck at your local fast food outlet, trying to resist the siren call of French fries, what can you do?

It helps to read labels.

Nutrition information regulations, such as labeling calories on menus in fast food outlets as put into law in New York City, are important, says Neckerman. You can also use your smartphone to look up calorie content.

“I think more information by itself is not going to be a solution, but it is an important first step,” she said. People can, once they see the caloric punch certain foods pack, look at the different options, and decide which food will be more nutritious.

The ‘food environment,’ the types of food readily available to a person, both at work and at home, as well as along the daily commute, has an impact on what — and how — we eat.

Reducing added sugar and salt are also important to consider when trying to improve the food environment we live in. Once people begin to become aware of how important the nutritional content of food is for their health, they, too, will make better food choices.

Make Healthy Food More Available and Less Expensive

Of course, the healthy food has to be there to choose. “Instead of restricting takeaway food, we should seek to transform it. Healthy takeaway food should not only be available, it should be as visible, tasty, and cheap as unhealthy food. Healthy eating should, in fact, be the default option,” Neckerman writes.

Not only should policymakers look at ways to encourage food outlets to offer something healthy, they should examine regulations which end up promoting unhealthy foods at the expense of those with more nutritional value.

Currently, farm policy offers farmers incentives to grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans, which makes it less cost effective for them to grow fruits and vegetables, raising the price of both, as opposed to less healthy foods.

People who live in communities where fruits and vegetables are cheaper tend to eat more of them, Neckerman points out. So making healthy foods relatively inexpensive compared to unhealthy foods is another thing to think about.

The study and editorial was published online recently in the British Medical Journal.