The overweight epidemic is one of the biggest threats to Dutch public health. Currently, about half of the adult Dutch population has overweight; this is expected to be over six in 10 by 2040. Being overweight is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25.0 or higher. Being overweight increases the risk of various chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease.
Fast food restaurants: part of the explanation for the overweight epidemic?
The presence of many fast-food restaurants, such as local kebab stores and large fast-food chains, may be part of the explanation for why overweight has increased in the population in the Northern Netherlands. After all, fast food restaurants are easily accessible, have a fast service and mainly offer highly caloric unhealthy meals. The number of fast-food restaurants in the Netherlands has grown considerably in recent years. This creates an unhealthier living environment.
Three-quarters of participants live within 1 km of a fast-food outlet
In his research, Carel-Peter van Erpecum investigated the relationship between residential exposure to fast-food restaurants and BMI. To do so, he used data from Lifelines, a large-scale population study in the Northern Netherlands. More than three-quarters of Lifelines participants had at least one fast-food restaurant within one kilometre of their home.
Higher BMI in presence of fast food restaurants
In his thesis, Van Erpecum found that participants with multiple fast-food restaurants within 1 kilometre around the residential address had a higher BMI than participants without fast-food restaurants within 1 kilometre around the residential address. He also found that participants who lived less than 250 metres from the nearest fast-food outlet had, on average, a higher BMI. Moreover, his thesis showed that people who had more fast-food outlets within 1 kilometre increased more in BMI over time. Further, when people had an increase in fast-food restaurants, for instance due to moving houses, an increase in their average BMI was observed.
Some groups extra vulnerable
Van Erpecum also showed that certain groups are extra vulnerable to the presence of fast food restaurants. The results of his thesis show that individuals from rural areas and vulnerable neighbourhoods, young adults and especially young adults with a higher genetic risk of increased BMI are particularly vulnerable due to an unhealthy fast-food environment.
More policy action needed
According to van Erpecum, the results show that exposure to fast-food restaurants is part of the explanation for the increase in overweight in the population in the Northern Netherlands. He therefore advocates policy measures for a healthier food environment to facilitate healthy lifestyles and tackle the overweight epidemic. He hopes the results of this study will be used by policymakers to create healthier living environments.
Carel-Peter van Erpecum (Utrecht, 1995) followed the Research Master in Clinical and Psychosocial Epidemiology in Groningen. He conducted his research at the SHARE research institute of the UMCG under the supervision of Nynke Smidt, Ute Bültmann and Sander van Zon. The title of his thesis is: ‘The role of fast-food outlet exposure in Body Mass Index’. He is now working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Applied Economics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.