Tips to Stay Healthy in a Food Swamp

By , Cardiologist – Virtua Cardiology

Drive through many areas, and you seem surrounded by unhealthy eating choices: burger and fried chicken joints, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and coffee and doughnut shops.

“Food swamps,” as these neighborhoods are called, are places where fast food outlets greatly outnumber healthy food options. They often coincide with “food deserts,” where there are a lack of grocery stores or farmers markets offering convenient access to affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables.

A diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources like poultry, fish, and soy, low-fat dairy, whole grains, nuts, and legumes is key to good overall health.

Consistently eating foods high in trans and saturated fats (think pizza, burgers, and burritos stuffed with sour cream and guacamole), carbohydrates (chips and cookies), and sugar (soda, ice cream, and candy) greatly increases your risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Unfortunately, many food swamps are in low-income and under-resourced neighborhoods, disproportionately affecting Black, Hispanic, and other people of color. These individuals already are at higher risk of heart disease, and often have less access to health care.

Even if we live in areas with more diverse culinary choices, we’re often drawn to unhealthy fare due to taste and convenience. We’re also cost conscious, as a cheeseburger can cost half as much as a salad. This can make eating out a lose-lose proposition when it comes to our health. 

You don’t have to get bogged down in the swamp though. To avoid temptation and maintain a healthy diet:

Start a home garden or join a community garden. There’s nothing like freshly picked, organic produce to supplement your meal.

Plan your meals. When you can make it to the market, come with a defined list of foods to buy. Besides fresh fruits and vegetables, stock up on frozen varieties so you’ll have them on hand. Avoid canned foods, as they are often high in salt.

Brown bag it. Instead of ordering out for lunch or dinner, make your meal at home and bring it to work or school. That way, you can control your portions and calories.

Carry a healthy snack. An apple, carrot sticks, or some nuts in the car might keep you satisfied until you get home—and away from the drive-thru.

Look for healthy options. If you do opt for fast food, try to choose healthy options, like salads and grilled chicken instead of fried. Resist “supersizes” or “value meals” that can have lots of extras. Buy the small size or share an order with someone instead.

Beware of beverages. Soda, coffee concoctions, juices, and alcohol can have more sugar and calories than an entrée. Choose water.

Eating healthy can be difficult, especially in places where you don’t have a lot of choices. But with a little planning and effort, you can maintain a proper weight and prevent medical problems down the road.

Need Help Planning Your Meals?
Virtua registered dietitians work with your food preferences and health needs to help you develop a healthy eating strategy that fits your lifestyle. Call 888-847-8823 to make an appointment.

Updated June 7, 2021

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