Background: The association between the residential fast food environment and diet has gained growing attention. However, why the food environment affects food consumption is under-examined. This study aimed to investigate neighbourhood social norms with respect to fast food consumption as a potential mediating pathway between residential fast food outlet exposure and residents’ fast food consumption.
Methods: A correlational study was conducted in which a nationwide sample of 1038 respondents living across The Netherlands completed a survey. Respondents reported their fast food consumption (amount/week) as well as perceived descriptive and injunctive norms regarding fast food consumption in their neighbourhood. Fast food outlet exposure was measured by the average count of fast food outlets within a 400 m walking distance buffer around the zip-codes of the respondents, using a retail outlet database. Regression models were used to assess associations between residential fast food outlet exposure, fast food consumption, and social norm perceptions, and a bootstrapping procedure was used to test the indirect -mediation- effect. Separate analyses were performed for descriptive norms and injunctive norms.
Results: There was no overall or direct association between residential fast food outlet exposure and residents’ fast food consumption. However, fast food outlet exposure was positively associated with neighbourhood social norms (descriptive and injunctive) regarding fast food consumption, which in turn were positively associated with the odds of consuming fast food. Moreover, results of the bootstrapped analysis provided evidence of indirect effects of fast food outlet exposure on fast food consumption, via descriptive norms and injunctive norms.
Conclusions: In neighbourhoods with more fast food outlets, residents were more likely to perceive fast food consumption in the neighbourhood as more common and appropriate. In turn, stronger neighbourhood social norms were associated with higher fast food consumption. Acknowledging the correlational design, this study is the first that implies that neighbourhood social norms may be a mediating pathway in the relation between the residential fast food environment and fast food consumption. Future research may examine the role of neighbourhood social norms in other contexts and explore how the changing food environment may shift our consumption norms.