March 1, 2016

What if a street map could show how healthily people eat?



UW and GHRI researchers have come up with innovative maps that illustrate the link between wealth accumulation and diet quality.

Imagine you’re creating a program to encourage people to eat more healthily. Who would you want to benefit? Where would you locate the program? While it has long been noted that people with higher socioeconomic status tend to eat better, that doesn’t easily translate into knowing which populations need help. But researchers have come up with an original solution.

Adam Drewnowski, PhD, of the University of Washington (UW), GHRI Associate Investigator Andrea Cook, PhD, and colleagues discovered a way to objectively measure socioeconomic status and connect it to measures of diet quality by linking the values of people’s homes with dietary data from the Seattle Obesity Study. The results are detailed maps illustrating the geographic distribution of diet quality across Seattle-King County at the census-block level.

The investigators found that people with higher residential property values, education, and incomes were associated with higher healthy-eating scores, even though higher property values were not necessarily associated with higher educations or incomes. They also found that education and residential property values were better associated with healthy eating, compared to income.

The first study of its kind

This innovative study is the first to link residential property values (an objective measure of wealth) with diet quality, and illustrates that property values may capture wealth differences better than the traditional measures of education and income. It is also the first study to visually display the geographic distribution of federal measures of diet quality at the census-block level.

“Wealth is a new concept, set up by property values,” Dr. Cook said. “It actually seems to be more tied to health than are traditional measures—which makes some sense, especially for older adults.”

Not only do researchers, clinicians, and program planners now have a new tool for dietary intervention programs, but this investigation also paves the way for valuable future studies on the geography of diets and health.

Drs. Drewnowski and Cook published their findings with UW coauthors Anju Aggarwal, PhD, Orion Stewart, PhD, and Anne Vernez Moudon, DSc, in Preventive Medicine: Geographic disparities in Healthy Eating Index scores (HEI–2005 and 2010) by residential property values: Findings from Seattle Obesity Study (SOS).


By Casey Luce, MSPH. Casey Luce is a project manager at Group Health Research Institute.