The Elephant In The Supermarket: How Bulk-Buying Is Making Us Fatter

As you load up the car boot with shopping bags from your weekly trip to the supermarket, have you ever thought about how the place you shop at might affect your health? New research suggests the size of big supermarkets prompts us to shop less often and buy more on each trip which could be affecting our health and waistlines.

Two studies published this year suggest a link between how often people go shopping and the healthiness of the food they buy. Large supermarkets are undoubtedly very convenient. They're a one-stop shop with a huge variety of products on offer. But evidence suggests their size prompts us to shop less often and buy more on each trip. Could the enormity of our shops be making us fat?

Loving large

In Australia, we love our shops big. In fact, big shopping centres (Chadstone in Victoria is the biggest in the southern hemisphere), supermarkets and warehouse-style shopping are ubiquitous in many western countries. While strip shops might be where we go for good cafés and boutique fashion, if we want hardware, a fridge or food, we want all the options, all in one place.

A recent study of eight similarly wealthy countries found only New Zealand and the United States had bigger supermarkets than Australia. Perhaps it's no coincidence that they are both among the very few countries that have a higher prevalence of obesity than Australia.

In fact, the research found an almost perfect correlation between how big a country's supermarkets were and the number of obese people in that country. While there may well be other explanations for this association, the link between shopping less often and buying less healthy foods strongly suggests that store size is indeed a big part of the problem.

There are many potential ways in which big supermarkets might be bad for our health. Here are a few:

  • When we shop less often, we may be less likely to buy fresh food because it spoils quicker.
  • We tend to buy more in bulk, bringing home more food than we need.
  • Our cupboards and pantries become full of food, encouraging us to eat when we are not hungry.
  • We use cars to get to large shops and to transport the food back, meaning less physical activity than if we had walked, cycled or used public transport.
  • We're overwhelmed by choice in large stores, potentially making us more susceptible to marketing tactics and displays that encourage impulse purchasing decisions.

It's also worth noting that large Australian supermarkets have more soft drinks, confectionery and chocolate at checkouts and end-of-aisle displays than many comparable countries.

The wrong style

Australian shops are increasingly set up to encourage a style of shopping that prioritises convenience and car use. The shopping mall has decisively won the battle over the shopping strip.

Many suburbs now revolve around mega-malls that take us further from away frequent shopping trips, fresh food and walking or cycling to the shops. We know that our ever-expanding urban footprint encourages car travel over active forms of transport, but it now appears it may be impacting our diet too.

With big supermarkets facilitating greater convenience and lower prices for customers, it's unlikely there will a push for smaller stores and more strip shopping in this country any time soon.

But there are a few changes that could make a difference. First, continued improvement to public transport, such as better bus connections to major supermarkets, could make it easier to leave the car at home when going shopping. Not only would this be a more active way of getting to shops, it would encourage buying less (but more often) because everything has to be carried home.

The use of zoning regulations, lower tax rates or other incentives could be explored to encourage small businesses, such as green grocers and delis, to open in neighbourhood areas.

And perhaps most importantly, our large supermarkets could be encouraged to do better than heavily promoting the unhealthy foods we know to be the main drivers of the obesity epidemic. It is certainly possible to have a healthier food environment in a large supermarket.

These sorts of changes may help contribute to a cultural shift in the way we shop. In the meantime, it seems we might be destined to pay for our convenience with our health.

Adrian Cameron is Senior Research Fellow, WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University and Gary Sacks is Senior Research Fellow, WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


Comments

    You have found a correlation, not a cause.

      "In fact, the research found an almost perfect correlation between how big a country’s supermarkets were and the number of obese people in that country"

      Excellent reading ability, well done.

    You know what's REALLY making people fatter? Lack of self control. Simple as that.

      That's right. Oh, and epigenetic factors relating to the diet and lifestyle of your parents and even grandparents.
      And psychosocial issues and subtle psychological cues you may not even be aware of but you bet your ass large companies are.
      And gut microbiota subtly chemically influencing you as well.
      But mainly self control.

        And while we are at it - a calorie is not a calorie (protein, fat, and glucose all effect fat storage differently) so self control is not the whole picture.

        Food culture also makes up a large portion of the problem. Eg. Your exposure to food is influenced by your upbringing and friends and advertising which then affects the types of foods that you choose (and know about) that then affect your fat storage, leptin, and insulin resistance. This then affects fat storage because a calorie is not a calorie that then affects your satiation (through leptin mediation - read up on physiology for this point) that then affects the food that you eat.. and so on (ad infinitum).

        Basically, the fatter you are - the more leptin (hormone that tells you that you don't need to eat and that you have enough energy stored) you have. The problem is that many ppl are really quite fat and have loads of leptin around which CAUSES leptin resistance (its not just about insulin resistance). Once you are leptin resistant, your brain keeps telling you that you are hungry which makes you want to eat so you eat. This makes you fatter and more leptin resistant. Life is made up of many of these reciprocal relationships.

        Sorry but self control is an over simplified explanation. The human body is a complex system which sure is affected by your self control but your self control is also affected by your already established physiology which determines what you want to choose. The solution is not telling ppl about self control only. This only leads to guilt because they have physiology making it very, very difficult to follow through on self control. They need dietary change, food culture change, exercise and self control education.

          It is absolutely an oversimplified explanation, people need to be responsible for their own actions. Life isn't so easy, fuck yes the influences on your daily life are going to impact your physiology over the long term. The point is, the INDIVIDUAL is in control of what they choose to do about it. If you gain weight easier then other people, Tough shit, Quit complaining and get off your ass to do something about it. Stop blaming other people. I am sick to death of seeing people play the blame game instead of taking some personal accountability. Family overfed you and now your leptin resistance is fucked up? Tough shit. Get off your ass and do something about it. People need to stop expecting handouts and pointing the finger and realize that they have the power to make the change. Is it gonna be easy? Hell no. If you've gotten yourself so messed up by years of neglect you bet your ass you'll be working just as long to be on the right track.

          I do understand the things you have posted, I am well aware of them, but once again, at the end of the day, It is all on the individual. They are responsible for learning the ins and outs of their body, they are responsible for effecting the change, and while all of the things you mention are contributing factors it means fuck all at the end of the day. Make the change you want to make. Be the person you want to be. OWN that fucking shit. Just stop it with the 'oh woe is me, im so hardly done by, evil companies tricking me. Bullshit. Enough is enough.

          Edit: Two more things:
          "They need dietary change, food culture change, exercise and self control education."
          You are god damn right they do. And they need to seek it out themselves.

          " Once you are leptin resistant, your brain keeps telling you that you are hungry which makes you want to eat so you eat. This makes you fatter and more leptin resistant"
          Perfect example of lack of self control. These people should be able to recognize and act on these moments where your brain is telling you 'eat more'. Sure, it takes some practice, and it's hard work. But that's the problem, The people are lazy. They don't want to work hard. They want to double think, or play the blame game.

          Anyway, I'm done. Fatties gonna fat. Complainers gonna complain. No sympathy here though.

          Last edited 01/09/15 12:38 pm

        Look, I understand that those are all viable factors in how a person gains and loses weight, but at the end of the day, each person is in control of their own body and what they put into it. The fact that we have differing factors in how we gain and lose weight is irrelevant. You are in control of what you stuff your face with.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now