Hunger and Obesity: How These Two Nutrition-Related Issues Are Connected

When one thinks about hunger in America, the image of someone who is obese generally isn’t the first thing to come to mind. The two health issues seem to be on opposite ends of the nutrition spectrum, so how could an individual face both at the same time?

Hunger doesn’t always mean having little or nothing to eat. Food insecurity – where people do not know where their next meal will come from – plays a part in U.S. hunger, too. Consistent access to nutritious food is needed to be healthy, active and food secure.

Food insecurity is closely linked with poverty: About 75% of Americans who were food insecure in 2011 were at or below 185% of the poverty level, according to data reported by Feeding America. That means a family of four had an annual income of about $41,000 or less to provide food, clothing, shelter, and other basic needs, which can be a challenge.

Families who are food insecure and low income have many unique circumstances that may put them at a high risk for being overweight or obese. Some of these factors include limited financial resources for healthy food, decreased access to healthy food and activities, and unhealthy eating patterns.

Limited Budget, Limited Options

Unhealthy food is generally cheap and accessible in America. A limited food budget may lead a family who is struggling with food insecurity to choose more high-calorie, energy-dense food. They may opt for sugary fruit drinks, french fries and chips, for example, instead of more expensive – yet healthier – fresh fruits and vegetables.

Although some food insecure individuals may consume enough of these low-quality foods to prevent physical hunger, they are also consuming too much fat and a lack of adequate vitamins and minerals. This can contribute to obesity and poor nutrition.

Living in a Food Desert

Even if an individual is motivated to choose healthy food, access is often lacking in low-income neighborhoods. Local stores may not carry many fresh fruits and vegetables, and larger grocery stores may be too far away for some families to travel to. In addition, opportunities for physical activity outside are often limited in certain low-income neighborhoods due to safety, which only adds to the weight problem.

Evaluating Eating Patterns

The feast and famine eating patterns that some with food insecurity face can also contribute to an unhealthy weight. The famine stage, when inadequate food is available, can lead to a decrease in metabolism as our bodies try to conserve as much energy as they can. Then, when food is more plentiful and we feast, our bodies are still in the habit of trying to conserve energy, which can lead to an unhealthy weight gain.

Finally, the high stress that is associated with food insecurity and poverty has also been linked with unhealthy eating habits and greater weight gain. High levels of stress have been associated with behaviors such as overeating, and it may even lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression. In addition, high stress may lead to changes in the body’s metabolism and hormone levels, which can have a negative effect on weight.

Making a Difference

Data from Feeding America indicates that 50 million Americans, or 16.4% of the U.S. population, were considered food insecure in 2011, with more than 2 million Ohioans in this category. ProMedica is based in Lucas County, Ohio, where an estimated 83,000 residents, or almost 19% of the population, were food insecure in 2011. This indicates a greater need to address food insecurity in our area.

At ProMedica, we are especially concerned with hunger and food insecurity among vulnerable populations, including children.

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Periods of food insecurity in youth can negatively affect many aspects of a child’s development, leading to decreased physical health, delayed cognitive development, decreased academic achievement, and impaired mental and emotional health.

Because hunger and obesity can be interconnected, it is vital that we consider both issues when trying to address one or the other. Simple actions can help address the overall problem, such as donating healthy items to food banks, encouraging families who are eligible to participate in free or reduced-priced meal programs at schools, and supporting the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

To learn more about obesity and food insecurity in kids, view the Nourish to Flourish Infographic from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Chloe Berdan, MS, RD, LD, is a clinical dietitian with ProMedica Advocacy and Community Health, and her main passion is promoting childhood and adolescent health and wellness. She has a bachelor of science degree in Health and Sport Studies from Miami University and a master of science degree in Clinical Nutrition from Rush University.