The link between poverty, hunger and obesity

In 2011:

  • 46.2 million people (15%) were in poverty (fromFeedingAmerica.org)
  • 50.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.5 million adults and 16.7 million children (fromFeedingAmerica.org)
  • 35.7% of adults and 17% children and adolescents (ages 2-19) were considered obese (from CDC website)

What is your initial reaction to these statistics? Hard to comprehend? Let me break it down for you a little differently.

  • 1 out of 6 Americans live in poverty
  • 1 out of 6 Americans live in food insecure homes
  • 2 out of 6 Americans adults are considered obese

Do you see any correlations between these numbers? The easiest ones to connect are poverty and food insecure homes because it makes sense. People with low-income are likely going to have less to spend on food. But to fully understand the connections, and the reasons behind the connections, it’s important to understand how each of these terms are defined.

  • The U.S. government defined the poverty level in 2012 at a total yearly income of $23,050 for a family of four.
  • Food security is defined in terms of access to enough food to lead an active, healthy lifestyle.
  • A person is considered obese when their body mass index, or BMI, is equal or greater to 30. BMI is a measurement obtained by dividing a person’s weight by their height in inches. (Granted, BMI can be deceiving. For example, a muscular individual will have a high BMI but would not be considered obese.)

Think about this scenario from the documentary Food Inc. A low-income family of four is trying to decide what to eat for their next meal. As the parents explain, they want to feed their children nutritious foods because they know it is better for them. However, fresh produce is expensive, especially considering the low caloric value of these foods. Mom and Dad wrestle with the decision between healthy foods or a value meal from McDonald’s because their kids will feel more satisfied with the more filling foods there, making their limited funds stretch further. In the end, the camera pans to the family driving down the road with McDonald’s products in hand.

drewnowski_food graphc nutrient-vs-calorie-costs

This is the plight of many Americans today as food prices continue to escalate. Foods that are good for our bodies are out of reach for the budgets of many, creating this undeniable link between poverty, food insecurity, and obesity. Consider the following two graphs by University of Washington professor Adam Drewnoski demonstrating the energy density of foods compared to their nutrient rich score and their energy cost.

This can be perspective-shifting information if you have the view I used to. I held to the belief that people are overweight and obese because of personal choices to eat unhealthy and not exercise. While I still believe this is a factor, research by people like Drewnowski have opened my mind to see other contributing factors. Much is floating around as to how to remedy this problem and I will cover these in a subsequent post. In the meantime, let your mind digest this information and realize that the obesity epidemic in America is a serious issue that is partly rooted in the injustice of how our food system is structured.

For additional information, read this article on processed foods as a recipe for obesity.

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3 thoughts on “The link between poverty, hunger and obesity

  1. Find a way to make vegetables tasty, quickly and cheaply and you will be a millionaire. It’s possible with seasonings. My dad has made some very tasty zucchini “fries” by slicing zucchini, brushing it with olive oil and sprinkling seasonings on it. He’s also made “spaghetti” with spaghetti squash, tomato sauce, and small meatballs and it’s really tasty. The problem is that, as you mentioned, it is not as readily available or as inexpensive as McDonald’s. I don’t think that there’s any injustice here; it’s just supply and demand at work. Consumers haven’t been able to choose from better choices. The problem with the “healthy” stuff is that it’s always too expensive or weird. If somebody could solve that problem, the world would beat a path to their door.

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