A new study challenges the view that building supermarkets in so-called “food deserts” will help more Americans eat healthier.

Food deserts are places — often in poor, urban neighborhoods or rural areas — without easy access to stores stocked with fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods.

Rand Corporation researchers surveyed nearly 1,400 households in two low-income, mostly black Pittsburgh neighborhoods long regarded as food deserts.

The survey found that people who were younger, male, not college-educated and who often shopped at convenience and neighborhood stores consumed more sugar-sweetened drinks, optional fats such as butter, and added sugars. The same was true for people receiving government food assistance.

Older, college-educated men ate more fruits and vegetables, the survey found.

These social and demographic factors were nearly twice as important than where people shopped in predicting whether they ate healthy or unhealthy foods, according to the study.

“Our findings suggest that interventions that focus on modifying the food retail environment by opening more stores that sell healthy food will have relatively little impact on reducing consumption of unhealthy food,” lead author Christine Vaughan said in a Rand news release. Vaughan is a behavioral scientist at the nonprofit research organization.

“Instead, strategies designed to modify the choices people make about food stand a better chance of reducing consumption of unhealthy foods,” she added.

Proven strategies include imposing taxes on sugary beverages and limiting displays of unhealthy foods in all types of stores, the study authors said.

The researchers also audited 24 food stores in the neighborhoods they studied and 14 others where residents said they did major food shopping. Nearly all stores — from convenience marts to warehouse stores and supermarkets — emphasized unhealthy food over healthier choices, the findings showed.

Most unhealthy were convenience stores, neighborhood shops and dollar stores, the study found. Moderately unhealthy stores included discount grocers, supercenters and wholesale clubs. Healthy stores included full-service supermarkets, specialty grocers, and fruit and vegetable shops.

However, even the healthiest stores had prominent displays of unhealthy foods, the investigators found.

Study co-author Tamara Dubowitz, a Rand senior policy researcher, concluded that “this work suggests we need to do more than just trying to eliminate food deserts. We need strategies that can encourage healthy eating and discourage unhealthy eating.”

The report was published online April 25 in the journal Preventive Medicine.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on healthy eating.