Where do we eat? And what effect does our everyday environment have on what we eat? Dr Maartje Poelman from Utrecht University is investigating how the availability of food in our environment influences our eating behaviour, and how we can improve healthy food choices.
Most of us know that fruit and vegetables are healthier than candy and snacks. Yet taste, convenience, price, attractive promotions and the overabundant availability of ultra-processed foods often make us choose the less healthy options. Why is that? How does our everyday environment affect the choices we make and how can we influence change that leads to healthier lifestyles? This is the topic of research of health scientist Dr Maartje Poelman at the department of Human Geography and Planning.
Consumer food environment
In the research project entitled ‘Geographies of Food Consumption’, Poelman works closely together with a multidisciplinary team of researchers from her own Faculty of Geosciences and from the Faculty of Social Sciences and the University Medical Center Utrecht (UMCU). The project has three aims: to explore the consumer and community food environment in the Netherlands, to examine associations between food environmental exposures and health or food choices, and to better understand individual factors such as food literacy, stress, and financial restrain that are affecting the relationship between the food environment and diets. To address these objectives, Poelman conducts both cohort and new, real time studies since 2016.
Readily available food options
“Obesity is a major societal problem, a problem that is increasingly associated with the availability of ultra-processed convenience food”, says Poelman. “A few decades ago there was a scarcity of options, but that has given way to an abundance of cheap and unhealthy products.” For example, in walking distance of secondary schools in Utrecht unhealthy food like fried snacks is often more easily available than healthy options like fruits and vegetables. Poelman’s team showed this in a recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in March 2018. Moreover, a larger number of fast-food restaurants near peoples’ homes also increases the incidence of cardiovascular diseases, Poelman’s team and the UMCU concluded in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in April 2018. The team studied the access to fast-food outlets with data of over two million adults from the Global Geo Health Data Centre.
According to the researchers, policymakers should take account of the ‘fast-food density’ and its potential effects on public health – especially given the fact that the number of fast-food outlets keeps increasing. European guidelines to prevent cardiovascular diseases also recommend regulating the location and density of fast-food restaurants as a preventive measure.
In a follow-up study, Poelman is currently researching when and where people eat. In this ‘Food-Track’ study, she focuses on people between 25-45 year old living in urban areas in the Netherlands. A specially developed smartphone application tracks the locations of the participants in this study. Participants also keep track of their food purchases and consumption in the application. By doing so, Poelman is able to map where and when participants purchase and consume food.
Beyond the residential environment
“So far, most studies focus on the exposure to food outlets in peoples’ immediate living environment” says Poelman. “But we do not stay in our own neighbourhoods; we work, exercise, study and relax in different locations. If we want to research what effect our everyday environments have on our eating behaviour, then we have to include these locations in our research as well.”
Poelman received an NWO Veni grant in 2016, which allows her to undertake three years of research within the Global Geo Health Data Center and in the context of the Future Food Utrecht research hub under the strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability.