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Study links obesity to fewer neighborhood food options



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SALT LAKE CITY -- If you have lots of restaurants and grocery stores near where you live, a new study says you will actually have a better chance of being thinner.

The study, involving 500,000 residents of Salt Lake County, helps explain why Salt Lake City resident Brandon Taufer is not overweight. It may be the way he shops for food.

"Usually, [I] walk for food; probably about two, three times a week," Taufer says.

The scientific study basically endorses what comes naturally to Salt Lake City resident Mel Thomas: stuffing a loaf of bread in your backpack.

"I walk for food every time," Thomas says. "I don't shop in big increments. I get a little bag full of stuff."

University of Utah researchers found you're much better off, from an obesity standpoint, if you live in an area with multiple places to buy food--grocery stores, restaurants, even fast food.

"They have a lower obesity risk than individuals who live in neighborhoods where there are no retail food outlets," explains Cathleen Zick, professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.

The probable explanation? In neighborhoods where people are a long way from food, they drive there. People who live around an area like 9th and 9th, with multiple food vendors within a short distance of their homes, walk there.

"I do," says Salt Lake City resident Jessie Kopecky. "It's perfect. It's perfect exercise."

"A little bit of walking adds up," Zick says. "And the average adult gains about 2 pounds a year."

With a little bit of neighborhood food shopping, those extra pounds melt away. Life is good, or at least less fattening.

"I enjoy that whole idea. I think it would get more people out, to start walking to that instead of using cars," Taufer says.

Researchers admit there's a, sort of, chicken-and-egg issue that needs further study. It's possible people who are already skinny move to places like 9th and 9th just because they like to walk. Perhaps sprawling subdivisions don't create couch potatoes, maybe they just prefer to move there.

The obesity data was derived from height and weight information on 500,000 Utah driver licenses. Researchers say there is no privacy issue because they had no way to link height and weight information with individual names and addresses.

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Story compiled with contributions from John Hollenhorst and Sheryl Worsley.

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