Q: What is a food swamp and how could it affect my health?

A: You’ve likely heard about food deserts, urban areas with limited access to grocery stores that sell affordable, nutritious food. But food swamps are different. This is an area with a high-density of establishments selling high-calorie fast food and junk food.

In the U.S., research suggests these food swamps may have a bigger impact on obesity rates than food deserts.

A recent study in The Lancet illustrated just how important diet can be to our overall health; the authors found that roughly 20 percent of deaths worldwide were associated with poor diets — those short on fresh vegetables, seeds, and nuts but heavy in sugar, salt, and trans fats.

That is a sobering statistic, but not a surprising one. Life expectancy in the U.S. has declined over the last few years, from 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 years in 2017. The two leading causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were heart disease and cancer — the risks of which go down significantly with improved diet.

Behavioral change, and forming healthier habits — such as eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins — has long been the go-to mechanism for sustaining healthy weights and lowering risk of chronic diseases associated with obesity.

However, maintaining these healthy habits can be challenging in food swamp communities where foods high in salt, processed carbohydrates, sugar, saturated and trans fats, and cured or processed meats are abundant in markets, eateries, and restaurants.

Essentially, these foods are everywhere — ingrained in our culture and societal behaviors.

In order to have more significant health improvements in underserved communities, nationwide interventions to reduce resources and availability of unhealthy foods are necessary. One strategy might be to enact policies that give healthy food retailers an incentive to set up shop in underserved neighborhoods.

Farzaneh Daghigh, Ph.D., is a professor of biochemistry and codirects the Culinary Medicine elective at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.