Article

Food, nutrition, and the health of urban populations

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Abstract

Living in an urban setting brings challenges as well as benefits. The challenges include reduced accessibility to healthy foods, fewer community resources, the abundance of fast-food restaurants, and food insecurity. Opportunities for improving nutrition and physical activity include farmers' markets, street vendors for fresh and nutritious foods, and the greater variety and availability of food items that are familiar to many immigrants. Because of the close proximity of shops and stores, the urban environment also encourages residents to walk more. Parks in cities offer opportunities for walking, jogging, and bicycling. In addition, many nonprofit organizations offer indoor spaces for physical activity. While the available evidence supports action to improve the nutrition of urban residents, more research is needed to set priorities and more clearly establish the pathways between specific features of the urban environment and nutritional status. Research priorities include the evaluation of school-based interventions to promote healthy dietary habits and physical activity among inner-city children; the development of participatory research methods tailored to the needs of urban residents; improvements in social welfare programs, from WIC to food stamp to school nutrition programs to help participants find the appropriate balance between increasing food security and reducing obesity; and the development and evaluation of economic and other incentives for establishing recreational facilities and supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods. Finally, more research is needed to understand better the connections between nutrition and physical activity at the individual, community, and government-policy levels. In the policy arena, promising approaches that warrant further attention are the creation of food subsidies for healthy food items such as fruit and vegetable and taxes on unhealthy foods such as soft drinks. To increase opportunities for physical activity in urban settings, policies to increase the number of and access to places conducive to physical activity should be pursued. By pursuing these research and policy questions, public health nutritionists and other health professionals can contribute to the goal of healthier cities for all.

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