Perfect timing for a national fruit and vegetable nutrition policy

Food shopping is associated with dietary outcomes in Ontario

The food environment and poor diets in Canada

Canadians typically fail to meet recommended daily guidelines for vegetable and fruit consumption, and many Canadians consume poor quality diets. Dietary behaviours are embedded in social, economic, and physical environments. Current diets are a logical response to the existing retail food environment in Canada, which tend to promote the purchase and consumption of less healthy foods and beverages.

Gaps in knowledge about food shopping and diet

The vast majority of dietary energy consumed in Canada is purchased in food stores as opposed to restaurants. Little is known about why consumers choose to shop for food in the places they do, and how buying food at different types of food retailers is associated with dietary and weight outcomes. These gaps in knowledge are important because if we understand why people shop where they do and how food shopping is associated with dietary intake, both retailers and public health practitioners can create effective strategies to improve the diet quality of Canadians – starting in the food store.

Investigating food shopping motivations and associations with diet and weight

We conducted a study using a population-based survey of 4574 residents living in 2596 households from Kitchener, Cambridge, and Waterloo, Ontario to examine: 1) motivations for food store choice; and 2) how food purchasing is associated with dietary and weight outcomes.

Food shopping motivations

First, we asked main household shoppers from the participating households the top three reasons why they choose a specific type of store when they buy food. The most commonly-reported reasons why shoppers chose a specific supermarket were: proximity to home, work or other daily activities, high food quality, and cheaper food prices. For convenience stores, proximity and convenient hours of operation were the most frequently-reported reasons. Shoppers most often reported choosing farmers’ markets based on the high quality of foods and because they wanted to “buy local”.

Food shopping diet, and weight-related outcomes

Second, we asked how frequently shoppers buy food from the following types of food outlets: supermarkets, supercenters, convenience stores, specialty stores, farmers’ markets, food banks, home delivery, and food co-ops. We also asked them to report their weight, height and waist circumference according to a standard protocol, and how frequently they consumed fruit and vegetables. For a sub-group (n=1362), we collected food records over two days, which captured detailed information on everything participants ate and drank. Most participants (91%) shopped at a supermarket at least once per week, compared to 16% of participants who shopped at supercenters, 10% who shopped at convenience stores, and 7% who shopped at farmers’ markets at least once per week. After adjusting for a number of socio-demographic factors (sex, education, car ownership, and household income), we found that people who shop frequently at supermarkets, farmers’ markets and food co-ops consumed fruit and vegetables significantly more frequently than those who shopped at these places less frequently. People who frequently shopped at convenience stores, used home delivery services, and used food banks consumed fruit and vegetables significantly less frequently than those who did not use these food outlets as often. People who often shopped at specialty stores and farmers’ markets had lower body mass index and smaller waist circumferences than those who did not use these types of food retail as often, whereas shopping at supercenters was associated with marginally higher body mass index and waist circumference.

Farmers’ markets, specialty stores, and convenience stores as important settings to promote fruit and vegetable intake

Shopping frequently at farmers’ markets and specialty stores was associated with lower weight and more frequent fruit and vegetable intake in the three cities, whereas shopping frequently at convenience stores was associated with less frequent fruit and vegetable intake. Because this study was cross-sectional, we are not able to say that shopping at farmers’ markets or specialty stores cause increased fruit and vegetable consumption. Indeed, it may be that people who enjoy consuming fruit and vegetables shop frequently at the farmers’ market because of the high quality of available produce. That said, this study builds on past research showing that in-store marketing, food availability, quality and prices can influence food purchasing, which then affects dietary intake. This study suggests that in particular, intervening in convenience stores to promote fruit and vegetable sales may be a promising direction for future interventions to improve fruit and vegetable intake in Canada.

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