Understanding the food-insecurity and obesity paradox

March 30, 2012
by Dr. Angela Odoms-Young

Dr. Angela Odoms-Young is an assistant professor of Kinesiology and Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a member of the Feeding America Nutrition Advisory Team and the Greater Chicago Food Depository Board of Directors.

The economic downturn has had a severe impact on low-income families in the United States. Current estimates indicate that approximately 48.8 million people live in households that are classified as food-insecure, having limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Households with incomes below the Federal poverty line, families with children, and families headed by single women are disproportionately at risk for food insecurity compared to Americans overall. While household food insecurity has long been associated with poor nutrition, adverse physical and mental health outcomes, and low academic achievement, a growing body of research is exploring the role of food insecurity in the development of obesity. Results from studies targeting children and men have been mixed, but a consistent link has been found between food-insecurity and overweight and obesity in women.

Many Americans might view this association as a paradox given that food-insecurity is defined as having limited or uncertain access to food and obesity is commonly associated with overconsumption. However, members of food-insecure households use various coping strategies that may contribute to weight gain. To maintain adequate energy intake, many families with limited resources select lower-quality diets, including high calorie-energy dense foods. These foods are traditionally the least expensive, are easy to over consume, have been shown to promote weight gain, and have been found to be more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods compared to healthier food options. Food-insecure households also spend less on healthy items. The frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption declines significantly as food-insecurity status worsens. Food-insecurity may also lead to psychological and behavioral changes, including stress, depression, and physical limitations in adults, which can lead to an increased risk for obesity. Mothers in food-insecure households are believed to be particularly vulnerable because of their important role in household food management. Previous studies indicate that food-insecure mothers adopt strategies, such as eating less, cutting the size of meals, skipping meals, and waiting to eat later in the day to spare their children from the impact of hunger.

The rising prevalence of obesity is one of our nation's most important public health issues. Understanding the link between food-insecurity and obesity may inform strategies to alleviate hunger, as well as better promote health and well being in low-income families. Hopefully there will be more research to come.

Tags: Nutrition , Greater Chicago Food Depository

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