Obesity and Poverty: The Poorest of Us Also Weigh the Most

Can being fat be caused by not having enough to eat, by living in poverty ? According to researchers, it can. In the U.S., obesity is more common in households of limited financial means, with those living below the poverty level to make up the highest percentages of the obese. This is what is called the “Hunger-Obesity Paradox”, where the seemingly opposite concepts of hunger and obesity coexist within the same person, in the same household.

But how can that be true ? It’s natural to think that if a person is poor and doesn’t have enough food to eat, that they would be slim. But, in the U.S., the highest rates of obesity occur among the poorest people.

Clinical research studies have been done to study the eating habits, grocery shopping habits and the income changes of obese, poor people in the U.S.

What these studies found were that the head of the households buy high calorie, high carbohydrate and high fat foods, with high density, when they have a limited amount of money each month. These kinds of foods, such as, hamburgers, doughnuts, pizza, salty snacks have the most dietary energy at the lowest costs and, at the same time, have the highest level of satiety and taste. In short, they taste good and make people feel full. However, they have the lowest nutritional value and the highest calories. In fact these obese people are overweight but under nourished.

7 Year old Girl is 220% Overweight

A 7 year old girl who was 220% over her ideal weight. She lived with her mother who used food stamps. Her mother said that during 2 weeks out of a month she didn’t have enough food and was unable to provide her daughter with low calorie, high density (filling) foods that she needed. Alternately, during the two weeks of the month when she had food, she would purchase high fat foods that were filling. The two weeks when there was not enough food, Dr. Dietz said her body stored the extra fat. Dr. Dietz proposed that the body has an internal physiological adaptation to retain fat when it is consumed a lot, when episodic food shortages exist. Dr. Dietz suggested that, to prevent obesity, impoverished populations require increased food supplementation, not food restriction. In 1995, Dr. William Dietz published these results in the professional journal, Pediatrics”Does Hunger Cause Obesity?”

In 2001, in a study by Marilyn Townsend, at the University if California (Davis) found that poorer women were fatter. More specifically, she found that the prevalence of overweight in women increased as food insecurity (not enough food on a regular, predictable basis) increased, the percentages of obese were 34% for those who were food secure, which jumped to 41% for those who were mildly food insecure, to 52% for those who were moderately food insecure.

Dr. Larry Brown, Director of the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University says that households with limited incomes change the quantity and variety of their food before they change the quality. Poor people eat high fat foods and they eat more of the same, when it is available. Brown says that the stomach is a dumb organ. It sends a message to the brain when it is full. It doesn’t matter what it is full of-potato chips or green salad. People need to be educated on what to eat, to feel full, that is nutritional and within their budgets.

These research results are not just for the morbidly obese or the poorest of poor. Our nation is becoming more and more like this group, in terms of obesity. What we need to do is learn from the research and alter our diets, everyday. That means: change our lifestyle.

We, as consumers, can learn from this research that the cheapest food is not always the best to buy.

Food Quality and Cooking

1.The cheapest food is not always the best food to buy even when there is little money.

For example, a 16 ounce bag of chips costs about $1.99 plus an on sale soda costs .99 cents. That equals about $3.00. In the car, on the way home from the supermarket, two children and a mother can finish off that bag of chips and large soda. It tastes great and you feel full or, at least, an edge has been taken off your hunger. However, for the same price you can buy 3 large, fresh apples for $1.50 plus a quart of lowfat or soy milk. A mother and two children can also consume this on the way home from the supermarket and feel the same fullness as the bag of chips and soda. But they can know that they ate nutritionally good food that contains vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. And for a fraction of the calories.

2.We can learn new ways of cooking or eating raw foods that are nutritional.

Cooking food is not always necessary. Raw vegetables often taste better and retain their nutrients when they are consumed raw.

Steaming vegetables is the next best thing to eating them raw. For example, when cooking broccoli . First, wash and cut the vegetable, then heat the pan, on medium high. Next, put the vegetables in an add one tablespoon of water and, immediately, put the lid on. It should be done in 10 to 20 seconds. Then immerse the vegetable in cool water for a minute. When using as little water as possible at a high temperature, then immersing them in cool water, this starts and stops the cooking process suddenly, which preserves the nutrients and taste.

Cooking (nutritional) styles from other cultures

We can learn healthy eating from other cultures. The Japanese have quite a few easy, inexpensive but healthy recipes. The following three recipes are good for summer since they are eaten cold.

1. ninjin salad = shredded raw carrots with a lemon squeezed over it.
2. horenso no gomai = cooked spinach then drained and the water squeezed out with paper towels. Mix ground sesame seeds and soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. The mixture should be mostly sesame seeds and soy, a smaller amount of vinegar and a pinch of sugar. Toss the spinach with this mixture. The sesame will cling to the spinach leaves and adds a nutty taste that even children like.
3. hiya-yakko = cold tofu covered with minced scallions and ground sesame and a few drops of soy sauce.

It is a challenge to eat healthy foods on a limited budget, especially with fruit prices so high. It is possible to go to farmers markets and fruit stands along the highways, to try to get fruit for a more reasonable price. In addition, visiting an orchard and picking your own is less pricey too. Choosing vegetables and fruit during the season when they are harvested is the best, since the prices are usually lower and the quality is higher.

If you want to read the research studies cited in this article:

Dietz WH. “Does Hunger Cause Obesity ?” Pediatrics.1995;95:766-767.

Scheier, Lee. M. “What is the Hunger-Obesity Paradox” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, June 2005.

Adams EJ, Grummer-Strawn l, Chavez G. “Food Insecurity is Associated with Increased Risk of Obesity in California Women”, Journal of Nutrition. 2003;133:1070-1074.

Townsend MS, Peerson, J, Love B, Archterberg c, Murphy SP. “Food Insecurity is Positively Related to Overweight in Women” Journal of Nutrition. 2001; 131:1738-1745.

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