A recent study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation suggests potential health threat posed by living in neighborhoods with scarce healthy grocery options.

Robbinsville, NJ —Healthy food accessibility is an issue that affects thousands of New Jerseyans. Many rely on the local neighborhood store for groceries because a supermarket isn’t in close proximity. Unfortunately, many of these stores don’t carry healthy foods. When fresh produce and healthy options aren’t available for purchase, families are forced to consume foods often loaded with saturated fat, high levels of sodium and poor nutrition.

New research published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation suggests a lack of access to nearby stores selling fresh food may increase residents’ risk of developing the signs of early heart disease

“The need for healthy food access in New Jersey in undeniable,” states Dr. Mario E. Pozo, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association and the Director of the Pre-Hospital Medicine Program/EMS Coordinator for Jersey City Medical Center, RWJ Barnabas Health.  “Heart disease and stroke remain the top health threats in the state, and a healthy diet can help reduce risk for these diseases.”

Past studies found that limited fresh food choices and/or numerous fast food restaurants in poorer neighborhoods were linked to unhealthy diets. Residents in these neighborhoods have a greater likelihood of early atherosclerosis (a disease that hardens arteries and underlies many types of heart disease), but no studies have examined which factors might cause this.

In this study, researchers explored how the limited availability of recreational facilities, healthy food stores, neighborhood walkability, and social environments may contribute to the early stages of atherosclerosis in 5,950 adults enrolled in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) over a 12 year follow-up period.

Coronary artery calcium can be measured by a CT scan to detect the amount of atherosclerosis in a person’s arteries. All participants underwent a CT scan at the start of the study. Of MESA participants studied, 86 percent had coronary artery calcium readings at three different times, with an average of 3.5 years between measurements.

After researchers excluded other features in these communities, including recreational centers, the data suggested that decreased access to heart-healthy food stores is the common thread in more rapid progression of coronary atherosclerosis in middle-aged and older individuals.

In New Jersey, corner stores are often the only place in the neighborhood to buy food. Unfortunately, many of these corner stores or bodegas face barriers to offering healthy items, like lack of refrigeration, storage, and training to sell and market the items.

In June, the Legislature passed "the Healthy Small Food Retailer Act," a first step toward providing resources to expand efforts that improve access to healthier food in all communities.  The bill, which is still awaiting the Governor’s signature, would also bring opportunities for economic growth, job growth and community development.  After establishing and investing in a Healthy Corner Store Program, Philadelphia saw a $1.1 million increase in earnings, $140,000 increase in tax revenue and the creation of 38 jobs in a 30 month period between 2010 and 2012.

“The recent research points to the need for greater awareness of the potential health threat for those living in areas without access to healthy grocery options,” continues Dr. Pozo.  “The Healthy Small Food Retailer Act will take steps to combat this concern in the Garden State.”

Researchers said future studies should examine the impact of specific interventions, such as promoting the location of healthy food stores and how neighborhood characteristics may interact with individual risk factors and genetic predispositions.

MESA is an ongoing study sponsored by the National Heart and Lung Institute of the National Institutes of Health. It has provided data for more than 1,000 published papers on a range of health issues in addition to heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends following a heart-healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish. It encourages eating foods low in saturated and trans fats and sodium, and limiting added sugars and red meats.

For more information, visit www.heart.org.