You are where you eat: Effect of mobile food environments on fast food visits

Bernardo Garcia Bulle Bueno, Abigail L Horn, Brooke M Bell, Mohsen Bahrami, Burcin Bozkaya, Alex Pentland, Kayla De la Haye, Esteban Moro Egido

Poor diets, including those high in fast food, are a leading cause of morbidity and mortality. Exposure to low-quality food environments, such as ‘food swamps’ saturated with fast food outlets (FFO), is hypothesized to negatively impact diet and related disease. However, research linking such exposure to diet and health outcomes has generated mixed findings and led to unsuccessful policy interventions. A major research limitation has been a predominant focus on static food environments around the home, such as food deserts and swamps, and sparse availability of information on mobile food environments people are exposed to and food outlets they visit as they move throughout the day. In this work, we leverage population-scale mobility data to examine peoples’ visits to food outlets and FFO in and beyond their home neighborhoods and to evaluate how food choice is influenced by features of food environments people are exposed to in their daily routines vs. individual preference. Using a semi-causal framework and various natural experiments, we find that 10\% more FFO in an area increases the odds of people visiting a FFO by approximately 20\%. This strong influence of the food environment happens similarly during weekends and weekdays, is largely independent of individual income. Using our results, we investigate multiple intervention strategies to food environments to promote reduced FFO visits. We find that optimal locations for intervention are a combination of where i) the prevalence of FFO is the highest, ii) most decisions about food outlet visits are made, and most importantly, iii) visitors’ food decisions are most susceptible to the environment. Multi-level interventions at the individual behavior- and food environment-level that target areas combining these features could have 1.7x to 4x larger effects than traditional interventions that alter food swamps or food deserts.

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