Hunger and Obesity: What’s the Connection?

Man eating food

Part 2 of a series on hunger in Maine

In America there is an assumption that with girth comes wealth and that people who are food insecure or malnourished are also automatically thin. Let’s remember that food insecurity means lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

Malnutrition and hunger aren’t simply related to a lack of food, they ALSO encompass a lack of access as well to afford healthy and nutrient dense food. Our society and culture have transitioned to one where the cheapest, fastest and easiest foods are often the least nutritionally dense—and these foods have a direct correlation to obesity.

Access

Low income neighborhoods often lack full service grocery stores, or have small markets or convenience stores that frequently do not carry the healthy foods that we all want to access such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy etc. These areas are frequently known as “Food Deserts”.  Many fruits and vegetables are priced out of reach at inner-city markets and convenience stores. Low income neighborhoods have higher rates of fast food restaurants, particularly near schools. And, while one can choose relatively nutritious items at these outlets, the majority of people do not do so, and low prices on the least healthy “combos” tempt many folks. For families that lack a car and rely on carpools to get to work, the kindness of friends and neighbors to take monthly trips to the grocery store, buying fresh or frozen produce for a month’s worth of groceries isn’t feasible. With practical suggestions, dietitians are able to help families devise a plan in which a month’s produce can be purchased at once (through a combination of canned, frozen and fresh options), but without education and access, this can prove to be very difficult for many families.

Financial Feast and Famine

Another reason obesity is seen in those experiencing hunger is that many go through a “feast or famine” cycle; going without meals when money is tight but when a paycheck or a monthly shopping trip arrives, overeating and splurging may occur. This constant cycle of low and then high food intake has been shown to increase rates of weight gain. On top of that, low-income families often experience high levels of stress due to the financial and emotional pressures they face. Research has identified strong links between stress levels and hormonal and metabolic changes that contribute to weight loss, as well as being linked to unhealthy eating behaviors. Taking advantage of food pantries can be a lifesaving move for many when money is tight, but in many cases, what’s being donated to food pantries are “empty calorie” foods. A prime example of this is supermarkets that supply food pantries with baked treats like birthday cake or leftover doughnuts and pastries—certainly fun treats, but definitely not nutrient dense. There are many incredible programs that are working to better educate everyone about how to eat better on a budget. In addition, more and more farmer’s markets, CSAs and Food Co-Ops are now accepting EBT cards. Though this is a great movement forward, farmers’ markets, though wonderful, frequently don’t have operating hours that work for most families and many are not located in areas close to low income neighborhoods. Several federal nutrition programs are in place to assist food insecure individuals also include programs to combat obesity. Studies of the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) have shown that with the assistance of additional dollars to go towards food each month, low income families have improved overall dietary quality and lower incidence of  obesity.

How To Help

You can help by donating money to pantries, which are able to stretch dollars further and use the monetary donations towards healthy staple foods. You can also focus on donating nutrient dense foods during food drives. Here are some easy-to-find, nutritious staples that food pantries are happy to accept:

  •  canned vegetables and fruits (no sugar added),
  •  dried whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat pasta, plain oatmeal, etc)
  •  shelf stable lean proteins
    • low/no salt canned chicken, turkey, or fish
    • canned or dried beans
    • peanut butter

For a more complete list of nutrient dense food donations please check out the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s list.

This post was written by Kristine Kittridge, MS, RD, LD and  Nicole Nadeau, Dietetic Technology student. Courtesy of the Maine Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For many years Diane Atwood was the health reporter on WCSH6. She's now a regular guest on the WCSH6 Morning Report. She is also a freelance health and wellness writer and blogger AND is pursuing a fine arts degree at the University of Southern Maine. Diane never plans to retire. She's too busy enjoying what she does.