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Research tips rural health challenges

Availability of healthy and unhealthy products a factor

Those who live in rural Canada may have a harder time keeping their New Year’s resolutions to eat better and live healthier lifestyles.

There are factors beyond individual choices influencing your personal health, and these differ depending on where you live, according to a new study released by McMaster University in Hamilton.

The researchers looked at over 2,000 rural and urban communities across Canada comparing how what grocery stores sold, prices of popular foods, and the availability of cigarettes and alcohol could influence the diets and lifestyles of those living there. It also compared how healthy foods are promoted and availability — or lack thereof — of healthy foods in restaurants.

Why it matters: For those who live rurally making healthy food and lifestyle choices can be more complicated.

What they found supports other research that shows where you live in Canada may play a role in your risk of major diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, the project’s lead author said.

“We found there are significant differences in environmental factors that may contribute to health, and that these differed between urban and rural communities, as well as when we compared eastern with western, and northern with southern communities,” said Russell de Souza, first author of the study and assistant professor at McMaster’s department of health research methods.

“We believe that this information shows there are factors outside of a person’s control that influence the individual’s health, and these factors likely differ depending on where they live.”

Just over 80 per cent of the 2,074 participating communities classified as urban with the remainder rural, including those found across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Not surprisingly, there was greater availability and more variety of fruits and vegetables in urban centres’ stores.

Rural communities are subject to more seasonal variation in what fruits and veg are on store shelves and also face higher prices, the study noted.

Other key findings are that rural areas generally also see less promotion of healthy choices and nutritional information in restaurants than urban communities, although cigarette prices are lower and variety higher in urban than rural communities.

Places to buy and consume alcohol were more common in rural areas. The study did not find prices of beer and wine significantly different compared to urban centres.

The study did not delve into other health determinants such as levels of population or walkability of communities.

Other studies have shown cardiovascular disease rates vary considerably across geographic regions of Canada, and have additionally examined geographic factors such as whether stores are within walking distance, or require driving to reach, or how easier access to fast-food restaurants has an effect on local population health.

This work adds to our understanding of “the causes of the causes,” said de Souza.

Where we live influences our health and that may be contributing to the development of major diseases such as heart disease, as well as Type 2 diabetes and some types of cancers.

“By understanding how the built environment plays a role, we can intervene both at an individual level, as well as at a community level,” he said.

“It’s one thing for your doctor to tell you that you need to eat more fruits and vegetables to lower your blood pressure, but what if your grocery store prices are so high that you cannot afford them? Or if to get to your grocery store, you have to drive for 30 minutes?

“If five to 10 servings of fruit and/or vegetables are recommended daily, we should advocate for everyone to be able to afford and access those servings.”

The study’s findings are published in the journal Cities and Health and is a component of Canadian Alliance for Healthy Hearts and Minds (CAHHM) research funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) through the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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