It’s no surprise that people who eat a lot of fast food, due to limited access to fresh food, have unhealthy diets. A new study from the American Heart Association has also linked early heart disease to limited healthier food choices.

According to the study, residents in areas with a dearth of fresh food choices and/or numerous fast food restaurants have a greater likelihood of early atherosclerosis — which causes hardened arteries and underlies many types of heart disease.

"The lack of healthy food stores may help explain why people in these neighborhoods have more heart disease," said Jeffrey Wing, Ph.D., M.P.H., co-lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Public Health at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. "The thought is that greater access to healthier foods may have promoted healthier diets and, in turn, less coronary plaque formation."

Researchers examined the availability of recreational facilities, healthy food stores, neighborhood walkability and social environments in 5,950 adults over a 12-year period to understand how these factors can contribute to the early stages of atherosclerosis.

"We found that healthy food stores within one mile of their home was the only significant factor that reduced or slowed the progression of calcium buildup in coronary arteries," said Ella August, Ph.D., co-lead author who initiated the study and clinical assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Our results point to a need for greater awareness of the potential health threat posed by the scarcity of healthy grocery options in certain neighborhoods."

So, what is a heart-healthy diet? The American Heart Association suggests eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish. It encourages staying away from saturated and trans fats and sodium, and keeping added sugars and red meats in moderation.

Source: Wing J, August E, et al. Lack of fresh food choices linked to signs of early heart disease. American Heart Association Rapid Access Journal Report , 2016.

Read more:

What Is ‘Clean’ Eating? 33 Healthy Foods For Weight Loss

Are Energy Drinks Dangerous For Heart Health? New Study Questions Risks, Nutritional Value