Objective: To examine the relationship between obesity and the community and/or consumer food environment.
Design: A comprehensive literature search of multiple databases was conducted and seven studies were identified for review. Studies were selected if they measured BMI and environmental variables related to food outlets. Environmental variables included the geographic arrangement of food stores or restaurants in communities and consumer conditions such as food price and availability within each outlet. The study designs, methods, limitations and results related to obesity and the food environment were reviewed, and implications for future research were synthesized.
Results: The reviewed studies used cross-sectional designs to examine the community food environment defined as the number per capita, proximity or density of food outlets. Most studies indirectly identified food outlets through large databases. The studies varied substantially in sample populations, outcome variables, units of measurement and data analysis. Two studies did not find any significant association between obesity rates and community food environment variables. Five studies found significant results. Many of the studies were subject to limitations that may have mitigated the validity of the results.
Conclusion: Research examining obesity and the community or consumer food environment is at an early stage. The most pertinent gaps include primary data at the individual level, direct measures of the environment, studies examining the consumer environment and study designs involving a time sequence. Future research should directly measure multiple levels of the food environment and key confounders at the individual level.