FRIDAY, April 18, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Restaurants near public housing developments tend to offer unhealthy meals, a new study finds.
Researchers analyzed menus from 61 fast-food and 72 table-service restaurants within a half mile of 13 housing developments and four residential neighborhoods in the Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., areas.
The housing developments and residential neighborhoods had similar numbers of restaurants, the majority of them fast-food outlets in both types of communities. Residents of the housing developments were predominately black and had low incomes.
"There has been a lot of research looking at the 'food desert' concept in which healthy foods are less available or accessible in lower-income neighborhoods," study co-author Katie Heinrich, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., said in a university news release. "In this study we found that both neighborhoods had equal access to foods, but that the quality of those available to public housing was much lower."
About three-quarters of the entrees offered at restaurants near housing developments were high in calories and fat and low in whole grains, vegetables and fruits, according to the study in a recent issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.
"There is the thought that people are unhealthy because they make poor choices, and that can certainly be true. But there is a huge influence from the environment that people are in that goes beyond individual responsibility," Heinrich said.
"Here we saw that 75 percent of the time it's going to be very easy to pick an unhealthy entree from a menu because those unhealthy entrees make up the majority of a menu," she said.
The researchers also found that table-service restaurants offered more healthy entrees than fast-food restaurants. And fast-food restaurants were more likely to promote super-sized meal items, and to target youngsters by having mascots and offering toys with food items.
The study findings are "important because if you go to a restaurant that has a few healthy choices and a lot of unhealthy choices, the chance of picking an unhealthy entree increases significantly," Heinrich said.
Fast-food outlets outnumber table-service restaurants near public housing developments, and this imbalance can lead people with tight budgets to choose cheaper, unhealthy foods, Heinrich explained.
"I think that there is a delicate balance between trying to make healthy food choices and having your environment facilitate healthy choices," she said. "But if we don't set up environments where the majority of choices can potentially be healthy, it becomes much more likely that people are going to make unhealthy choices."
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers tips for eating at restaurants.