Through a literature review, we investigated the geographic information systems (GIS) methods used to define the food environment and the types of spatial measurements they generate.
Searches were conducted in health science databases, including Medline/Pubmed, PsycINFO, Francis and GeoBase. We included studies using GIS-based measures of the food environment published up to 1 June 2008.
Twenty-nine papers were included. Two different spatial approaches were identified. The density approach quantifies the availability of food outlets using the buffer method, kernel density estimation or spatial clustering. The proximity approach assesses the distance to food outlets by measuring distances or travel times. GIS network analysis tools enable the modelling of travel time between referent addresses (home) and food outlets for a given transportation network and mode, and the assumption of travel routing behaviours. Numerous studies combined both approaches to compare food outlet spatial accessibility between different types of neighbourhoods or to investigate relationships between characteristics of the food environment and individual food behaviour.
GIS methods provide new approaches for assessing the food environment by modelling spatial accessibility to food outlets. On the basis of the available literature, it appears that only some GIS methods have been used, while other GIS methods combining availability and proximity, such as spatial interaction models, have not yet been applied to this field. Future research would also benefit from a combination of GIS methods with survey approaches to describe both spatial and social food outlet accessibility as important determinants of individual food behaviours.
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