Feeding America

Food insecure people are vulnerable to obesity

As weight and obesity continue to play a significant role in the health of our country, one unusual link keeps coming up: low-income and food insecure families are often at higher risk for obesity as well. 

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) recently wrote a piece looking at this startling link. The following story contains key factors from that study, the full study can be found here.

This issue is caused by much more than just over-eating. Food insecure people not only face the same changes as other Americans (ex. more sedentary lifestyles, increased portion size), they also face challenges in affording many healthy behaviors that are necessary to fight obesity.

Limited access to healthy, affordable foods

  • Low-income neighborhoods frequently lack full-service grocery stores that provide a variety of high-quality fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and lean proteins. Many low-income neighborhoods, or rural small towns, are in “Food Deserts” where the closest grocery store is too far away to reach by walking or biking. These neighborhoods are often full of convenience stores where processed, high fat, and high sugar foods are easy for a busy family to get, but also more expensive.
  • Houses with fewer resources are less likely to have and use their own vehicle for regular food shopping.  Findings by the USDA show vehicle access is a significant factor in determining if a family can access affordable and nutritious food.
  • Healthy food is more expensive but in terms of initial cost as well as potential for waste. Highly processed foods are considerably less expensive and families do not need to worry about spoilage. Families living on very tight budgets often rely on cheaper, processed foods which have lower nutritional quality and are linked to obesity.
  • Low-income communities have greater availability of fast food restaurants. These energy-dense, nutrient-poor meals are linked to weight gain and obesity.

Cycles of food deprivation and overeating

  • For people who are forced to skip meals to stretch food budgets, overeating when food does become available is common.  After going days on an empty stomach, it is comforting to feel over full. Adding another layer to this issue, cycles of food restriction or deprivation can cause metabolic changes which promote fat storage because the body is trying to build up energy sources for the next period of starvation.
  • Parents are particularly affected by “feast or famine” cycles. Parents will often eat less or skip meals in order to protect their children from hunger. This coping mechanism puts the parents at risk of obesity if they then overeat when food comes available.  Research has shown parental obesity being a strong indicator for childhood obesity.

High levels of stress, anxiety, and depression

  • Due to financial and emotional pressures of food insecurity, low-wage work, lack of access to health care, poor housing, neighborhood violence, and a host of other issues surrounding low-income families, many members of low-income families face high levels of poor mental health.
  • Stress and poor mental health may lead to weigh gain through stress-induced hormonal and metabolic changes as well as unhealthy eating habits and a lack of physical activity.

Fewer opportunities for physical activity

  • Lower income neighborhoods generally have fewer parks and recreational facilities than higher income neighborhoods, making it more difficult for children from lower income families to find safe places to play outside.
  • When available, parks and other green spaces in lower income areas are not as well maintained or as safe as those in higher income neighborhoods.
  • Children from low-income families are less likely to participate in organized sports because their parents cannot afford the extra cost and transportation requirements.

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