Super Size Me – What Fast Food and Pharmacies Say About a State's Health

Less surprising: the more fast food restaurants (and therefore pharmacies) a place has, the higher the diabetes rate. Adding diabetes rates by state reveals that the availability of cheap, unhealthy food, the demand for medications and the prevalence of a condition where obesity is a primary factor apparently all go hand in hand.

Of course, keep in mind that correlation does not equal causation; these are associations that may not necessarily be related, and these trends are not intended to be taken as scientific fact. Other factors may be supporting or driving these relationships, such as income, access to healthcare and various population factors.

Before we dive deeper, here’s a bit on how we came up with this analysis. We looked at the total number of fast food restaurants and the total number of pharmacy locations (from the GoodRx database) and compared them state by state. When we noticed a positive relationship between the two, we were curious if adding the rate of diabetes (also per state) to the mix would produce similar results. Turns out, yes.

Some regional patterns also stood out. For instance, the South dominates the top right section of the chart. Southern states on average have more pharmacies and fast food chains per capita than any other regions in the US. This is truest in West Virginia (43 pharmacies, 53 fast food restaurants per 100K residents) and Alabama (40 pharmacies, 63 fast food restaurants per 100K residents). Southern states also tend to have the highest diabetes rates, ranging from 10.6% to 15% of all adults.

The Northeast seems to have opposite characteristics of the South, with fewer fast food restaurants and skewing lower (but more spread out) in pharmacies. They also have lower rates of diabetes (between 8.4% and 11.3% of all adults). Connecticut (25 pharmacies, 24 fast food restaurants per 100K residents) and Massachusetts (23 pharmacies, 31 fast food restaurants per 100K residents) are on the opposite corner of the chart compared to West Virginia and Alabama.

Both pharmacies and fast food restaurants per capita in the West are lower than they are in the South, while those numbers in the Midwest sit in the middle—higher than the West and lower than the South. Wyoming, the western state with the most pharmacies per capita, and Delaware, the southern state with second least pharmacies per capita, both have 30 pharmacies per 100K residents. (Texas has the fewest pharmacies per capita in the South at 26 per 100K residents.) The South has higher diabetes rates than both the West (between 7.2% and 11.6% of all adults) and the Midwest (between 7.9% and 11.5% of all adults). You can see the charts for western states here and midwestern states here.

When it comes to the ratio of pharmacies and fast food restaurants, there were some notable findings. Northeast states tend to have more pharmacies than fast food restaurants per capita. If you remove the two outliers (Florida and Mississippi), the South solidly has more fast food restaurants than pharmacies per capita—again, the opposite of Northeastern states. The West and Midwest both generally have more fast food restaurants than pharmacies per capita, but that discrepancy is not as pronounced as in the South.

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