There have been several reports on the findings from a study by the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) at Cambridge University. In simple terms this study maps the growth in hot food takeaways in Norfolk using Yellow Pages data from 1990 to 2008 and makes two observations - there has been a significant increase in the number of such takeaways and they are more likely to be located in more deprived communities:
Over the 18 year period, the number of takeaway food outlets rose by 45%, from 265 to 385 outlets. This equated to an increase from 2.6 outlets to 3.8 outlets per 10,000 residents. The highest absolute increase in density of outlets was in areas of highest deprivation, which saw an increase from 4.6 outlets to 6.5 outlets per 10,000 residents (a 43% increase).
This, argue the researchers should be a concern because:
Frequent consumption of takeaway food has been associated with excess weight gain over time.Previous studies have shown that people of low socioeconomic status and living in deprived areas are more likely to be overweight and consume unhealthy diets than other sectors of the population. One possible explanation could be that more unhealthy food environments – for example, a greater density of takeaway food outlets – could be contributing to unhealthy lifestyle choices.
This is a familiar argument - let's call it the 'obesogenic status quo' - that we've looked at before. Essentially the argument is that the presence of such concentrations of fast food increases rates of obesity as the population is confronted with multitudinous 'poor food choices'. We also know that the evidence supporting such an argument is pretty weak:
...there was no signiﬁcant association between increasing takeaway and fast food consumption and obesity as measured by BMI corrected for age and gender. This is not a new ﬁnding. For example, French and colleagues found no signiﬁcant relationship between frequent consumption of fast food and being overweight in their analysis of a cohort of 11-18-year-old boys and girls. Similarly, Simmons et al found no correlation between increasing takeaway consumption and obesity measured by either BMI or waist circumference.
This shouldn't really surprise us since the components of obesity (overeating and lack of exercise) are not exactly driven by relatively expensive takeaway food. Indeed a recent study from Leeds Beckett University's childhood obesity research team provided further evidence rejecting the link between obesity and hot food takeaways:
“This study provides little support for the notion that exposure to fast food and other food outlets in the home, school and commuting neighbourhoods increase the risk of obesity in children. It seems that the evidence is not well placed to support governmental interventions and recommendations currently being proposed including zoning laws around schools and I would urge policy makers to approach policies designed to limit food outlets with caution."
So why is it that these takeaways seem to cluster in more deprived communities if it isn't primarily to cater for the needs of nascently obese deprived people? Now I don't have the CEDAR team's map but a map of deprivation in Norfolk show it to be concentrated in Great Yarmouth, Norwich and King's Lynn plus, less significantly. places like Cromer and Hunstanton.
It strikes me that the demand these hot food takeaways meet is as much driven by visitors as by the needs of the resident population. Great Yarmouth has some of England's most deprived places - but these are right behind the sea front (Nelson Ward is Great Yarmouth's most deprived) and I'm guessing take advantage of cheaper rents slightly away from the town centre.
The reality is - ask anyone in the business - that running a takeaway, whether a Chinese, Indian or fish & chips (the three types looked at in this study), is hard work and pretty low margin. Which means that you set up in places where there's demand and cheap rents - those deprived communities the researchers identify. Their location isn't connected to (or determining - people have choice and the UK doesn't have food deserts) the food choices of residents but rather to a desire to get as close as possible to busy town centres without having to pay higher town centre rents.
This research is interesting but really doesn't provide any further evidence supporting the demand - repeated yet again by the Local Government Association for councils to have more powers:
“Town halls want to put a stop to it and have pleaded that the first Queen’s Speech of the new parliament heralds a law to give them new authority over local licensing decisions. The Norfolk findings are generalisable across the country, particularly in urban areas. Local councils are desperate to limit junk food outlets increase or ban them outright but, like rabbits caught in the headlights, are petrified to do so in the face of face of legal challenges and red tape,”
Added to the aggressive use of egregious planning controls what we have here is an assault on one business type - not because it's remotely the cause of all that supposed obesity but more because such businesses are seen as a bit grubby and down-market selling greasy unappealing food to drunk twentysomethings and portly lorry drivers. As every local councillor knows, takeaways are never popular - people don't like the bad parking, the smells, the litter and (although they seldom say this) the customers. Sometimes they don't like the immigrants running them either. Blaming fast food takeaways for obesity is a convenient cop out from the real reasons for wanting to get rid of them - simple snobbery and prejudice.