Updated: 6/12/2012 12:58 PM ET|
Does being poor make you fat?
Researchers say obesity can often be blamed on a tight budget, not on moral weakness. But one particular skill can help you stay lean on little money.
Your income and social status are written all over your body, Adam Drewnowski says.
Drewnowski is an epidemiologist. He directs the Center for Obesity Research at the University of Washington in Seattle, and he lectures frequently. "I can pretty much guess the income of an audience by the number of obese women in the room," he says.
"If one-third of my audience is obese, I don't think, 'Oh, my God, these are people with weak willpower or who made bad choices.' I say, 'These are women who do not make more than $40,000 a year.'"
Poor women pack on pounds
Several studies, including Drewnowski's, show that poorer Americans are more likely to be obese than those who are wealthier. But when you look deeper into these studies, University of California, Davis, nutritionist Marilyn Townsend says, the difference is mostly among women: Poor women are much, much more prone to obesity than their wealthier counterparts.
The discrepancy between men and women isn't well understood. The drive for status may be what keeps wealthier women thinner, suggests Townsend, who specializes in behavioral change and works with other researchers, including Drewnowski.
Often, the obese are blamed for being morally weak, says a 2010 study in the International Journal of Obesity.
"People say things like, 'Why don't they just make a cheap pot of lentil soup and live on it for a week?'" Drewnowski scoffs. "Obesity is not the result of excessive indulgence; it's a symptom of lower socioeconomic standing in this country."
Lower-cost diets that are high in fat and sugar and lower in nutrients are more often consumed by people with lower education and incomes, Drewnowski says in research published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In smaller studies in Seattle, Drewnowski has found obesity as low as 6% in wealthy neighborhoods and as high as 30% in poor areas. (Obesity is a body mass index over 30; you can calculate your own body mass here.)
Drewnowski has even linked obesity to grocery stores: Customers of lower-cost Seattle supermarkets were up to 10 times more likely to be obese. As much as 40% of shoppers at cheaper grocery stores, such as Safeway, were overweight, compared with as little as 4% at stores such as Whole Foods.
"The minute you move to an area served by Wal-Mart -- because they place themselves in lower-income areas -- you will be surrounded by obesity," Drewnowski says.
The point is not that a particular store makes you fat or thin but that people who eat cheaply are prone to getting fat. Those who spend more generally are thinner.
There's "almost a straight-line correlation between wealth of the neighborhood and obesity among women," Drewnowski says. The 2012 federal poverty line for a family of four in the Lower 48 states is $22,050; that takes in nearly one in six Americans.
A spreading epidemic
Five years ago, only one state -- Mississippi -- had an obesity rate of more than 30%. But by 2010, 12 states had joined that club, according to a report published last year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America's Health, two nonprofit health advocacy organizations.
America's obesity problem is worst in the South. It's least bad in the Northeast and West. But here's how fast it's growing: The leanest state in 2011, Colorado, with an adult obesity rate of 19.8%, would have been the fattest in 1995. Two decades ago, not one state had a rate above 15%.
The two health advocacy organizations, among others, also link the problem with poverty. Their report says 33% of American adults earning less than $15,000 per year are obese, compared with 24.6% making more than $50,000.
Mississippi, with an obesity rate of 34.4%, is the poorest state in the union. Its poverty rate was 22.4% in 2010, the Census Bureau reported recently.
Causes of rising obesity
Although the connection isn't a simple straight line, Drewnowski see roots in three changes:
- Rising costs and stagnant wages. Salaries haven't kept up; single salaries rarely can support families as they commonly did 50 years ago.
- Changing jobs. The switch from manufacturing to a service economy reduced the number of stable, well-paid 9-to-5 jobs. Lower-paid shift work, now prevalent, pays less and makes it hard to schedule regular mealtimes.
- Working women. Fast-food restaurants are blamed a lot for obesity; the huge change in U.S. households stemming from the large-scale entry of women into the workforce in the past 50 years gets less attention.
Not everyone who is at risk is obese. There are other factors -- including genetics, emotions, psychology and metabolism -- although they appear to play smaller parts.
Townsend is interested in the minority who stay lean on tight food budgets. Immigrants from Asian countries, for example, largely resist obesity despite low incomes. In subsequent generations, however, Asian-Americans have joined the epidemic.
How to stay thin on a lean budget
The immigrants' secret? It's basic, says Townsend: They cook from scratch.
You can eat well without cooking at home. But it's expensive. Americans consume about a third of our calories away from home, according to University of Washington epidemiologist Barbara Bruemmer.
People trying to eat healthy on a low budget have no choice but to cook from scratch, Townsend says. But for many, it's not easy -- or even possible. Cooking from basic ingredients is nearly a lost art among large numbers of Americans because of a lack of training, time and organizational skills, she says.
When Townsend interviews people, she asks if they cook meals at home. Sure they do, many say. But it turns out that what they mean is that they're combining boxed ingredients or reheating processed food in a microwave.
"Changing is so much work," says Townsend. Taste buds attuned to fatty, salty, sugary fast foods and processed foods must be retrained. Processed foods combine cheap ingredients -- corn syrup, refined grains and fats -- and sophisticated chemical research for addictive eating experiences.
A bowl of homemade soup filled with vegetables and subtler flavors has trouble competing. It's often not realistic to expect people stuck in difficult lives with few good solutions to become enthusiastic about changing their diets.
Fast food isn't just nutrition; it's also cheap, satisfying entertainment. "And it's one of the few things that less-well-off people have: They don't have to cook," Julie Guthman, an associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told The New York Times. She's the author of "Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism."
The federal food stamp program, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), is trying a $20 million pilot program in Hampton County, Mass., to see if incentives can entice users to buy fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods.
Townsend's solution is simpler and more radical: Revamp SNAP so it can be used to purchase only ingredients -- no prepared foods, prepared ingredients, snacks or soda pop.
"The intent of the (food stamp) program, when it was established in the 1930s, was to help people buy ingredients that they would in turn use to cook at home," she says.
Drewnowski has another solution: Bring home-economics classes back to schools. "It would do more for obesity prevention than any other thing," he believes.
While the experts wrestle with big-picture solutions, you can start here:
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program classes teach menu planning, food preparation and food safety. SNAP has similar classes.
- A crockpot and crockpot recipes are basic tools in a busy, healthful kitchen.
- Slow Food USA challenges people to create healthful family and community meals for $5 per person or less. Here are cooking tips and links, community meals near you and tips for hosting a dinner or potluck.
- The USDA pamphlet "Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals" (.pdf file) has two weeks' worth of meal plans and easy recipes.
- Food52 shows how to "eat well at dinnertime for dirt cheap."
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One thing that stood out in this article to me is now that this woman is divorced and caring for two teenage children her food budget shrank... when married she was a stay at home mom and was able to buy betters foods. I have to ask, "where is daddy when it comes to seeing HIS children have foods for a healthy diet?"
The comments just reminded me of how cruel we are here in USA. There are many reasons for the obesity problem here. It is not one thing. Needless to say I sure hope we are doing better at teaching our youth how to eat better and exercise. We are very poor and eating healthy has cost us much more. I had to make many changes in order to afford the produce. (produce spoils fast so if you buy it eat it fast or buy smaller amounts of it. This is one time buying in bulk does not work) It WAS much cheaper to eat the unhealthy items. There are few coupsons to help with eating healthy as well. All the coupons are for premade stuff or processed stuff. That was how on my income of $22,000 I was able to feed my family of 5 without food stamps. Yes you read that right NO government assistance. Now that I have changed the food in our house to help us be healthier my groceries have skyrocketed. So it is NOT cheap to eat healthy and it take MUCH more time to eat healthy. So if you are working more than one job and have kiddos this is a very challenging situation. You may need to ask the kiddos to help with preperation.
So this is an other article that points to obesity is the cause of many reasons. Yet, we have narrow minded people who think it is due to will power alone. So to you all please do not be my doctor, please don't be the person who cuts my hair, don't be the clerk at the grocery store, I don't want you to assist me in any way because in your mind I am worthless. I am amazed at how easy some of you can disregard a human as worthless but you have. So I do hope that you find out what it means to be obese in USA so you can have some empathy.
To all of you people posting and criticizing people who are poor, but more so obese shame on you. Its funny how SO many people KNOW ALL the facts facing OTHER people. Just because YOU are able to do something or not, doesn't mean EVERYONE else is like you. Quit being so JUDGMENTAL of others. Its this judgmental attitude that feeds into why so many foreign countries have such dislike towards Americans.
Yes it does make sense that poorer people could have a higher rate of obesity. If someone is living on a very limited income and can buy two pks of hot dogs and two boxes of mac and cheese and feed the family for several days on less than what it costs to buy 1 steak that wont feed the family for one meal, what do you think is going to be bought,,,,,,,, not the steak. It is cheaper to buy lower quality food than it is to buy better choices. I can buy a can of pop cheaper than a bottle of water,,,,,,,,how lame is that? And which of those two is the better choice, we all know the water is but why should I buy that if I can get the pop cheaper? I try to raise my own meat and when I do I process it myself, trying to cut my costs feeding my family, but not everyone has this opportunity. Most people have to rely on what they can buy at the grocery and getting the cheapest in most cases is how the majority will spend their money. Don't judge some one else until YOU have walked in their shoes !!!
I also agree with the idea bringing back home economic classes to schools would go a long way towards the obesity problem in the U.S. What happens to the young adults today who didn't learn to cook from their parents because both parents worked and they either ate out or ate prepackaged foods and home ec classes were no longer offered? Today their children are faced with the same fate; and, in addition, the phys ed classes have been cut, as well.
Obesity will continue to be a problem as long as corporate greed rules America, wages are stagnant, and the number of people falling into poverty increases.
Windy City guy is a flaming moron. To compare modern children to those people that were in Nazi death camps is just plain ignorant. Today it is far more expensive to eat healthy than it is to simply eat. Fresh fruits and vegetables are much more expensive than foods that will allow a family to fill their stomachs and make it through the day. When you have to choose between eating and gas money to make the money needed to pay for said food, some people have little choice. The reason the people in Nazi death camps were so thin is because they were not fed...not because they chose to eat pizza over salad.
Oh yeah, stress causes hormonal problems, digestion problems, increased fat storage, impoverished areas lack food access and become food deserts. More stress.
Talk about food stamps, there but for the grace of God go you.
Don't judge harshly others, no matter the subject, for with the judgment you judge, you will be judged. Its like karma, what you send forth into the ether comes back on you, whether it is actions, speech, or thoughts.
There are a lot of judgemental people out there. Obesity is a major problem rooted many times in
childhood. It is not a simple problem. Lifestyle change is never easy. Nobody wants to change. If change was easy, nobody would smoke, drink or use drugs. For some reason, people seem to think fat people are easy targets. Why? As for poverty making you fat, the answer is simple: Cheap foods are unhealthy foods. Povery causes people to not obtain treatment for depression or other conditions, which makes easily treated illnesses worse. Lack of access to services, education and other resources contribute to this downward spiral. Add to this, the prejudiced attitudes of others who make snap decisions and a person begins to feel completely hopeless. None of this funny.
I eat some processed foods(but only 1 actual meal a day, followed by a white bread sandwich and a handful of potato chips at night, all of this washed down with tap water and the rare treat of black tea with lemon)long story short, I eat almost whatever I want(except tv dinners and fast food, also no sweetened drinks, and no soft drinks)and I have lost massive amounts of weight.
No, I do not stuff my face all day, I actually ate more when I had more money and a better house, it doesn't take money to help you lead a better lifestyle, sometimes it just takes moderation, anyone who is poor and obese shouldn't lose hope, just assess your life and make some changes, from what I've learned it is the AMOUNT of food you eat that makes you fat.
I have cooked daily for my family save a couple times a month when we are lucky enough to have enough money to go out to eat.
My daughter and I both have celiac disease, allergy to wheat, rye and barley.
Most of what I buy with our SNAP benefits has been basic foods. I shop the outside aisles of the store with a few inside purchases for things like Olive Oil to cook with, dog food for the dog that adopted us. Small dog. Oh and some paper goods, but SNAP does not cover them anyway.
If a person is working, my guess is there is one day a week when you can cook and freeze left over's or the other half of the meal for a good meal later. Many of us have had to do that.
I should also state that with my children being brought up on the foods on the outside aisles of the store kept them healthy in school with one missing 1 day in 4 years of high school and that was for a surgery for a family member and he missed because we had to go out of state.
The other has had asthma her entire life, but has only missed a couple of days here and there. Both children are very intelligent. My youngest is 7th in her class of over 200.
I will say that it did not good too. They are healthy but both very overweight.
So I think there is more to it than just my cooking. I think perhaps we need to get america moving.
My guess is that games on hand held machines and games on TV play a large part in America sitting more and more. How many have been chased inside due to all the scary stuff on the news?
Interesting world we have made the past 50 years...
Bring back PE daily in School.
Bring back art and music and drama
Bring back more options for our children to do so they are not sitting at home playing games and staying safe from all the strangers and folks out to do them harm.
In stead of making studies.. why not build more parks in low income areas or places these young folks can go to take their minds off food?
Just my opinion... I was an over weight kid.. but nothing like what my children have become...
So as one that does not fixed prepared meals. I can't afford them anyway. Give me gluten free basic ingredients and I get thanks from my family every day... The adults in the home are not as over weight as the children. Same food. Something is going on with young folks.
Cooking is not a lost art. The instructions are right there in front of any good all purpose cookbook...
May God Bless...
Does being poor make you fat? Only in America. How many fat impoverished people are there in Africa? I'm tired of the excuses - after all, we're footing the bill for people to buy soda with their food stamps, and then they go and buy their diabetic supplies with medicaid funding. I'm not against programs that help people out (0-13 I was on assistance), but we're paying to feed people junk food, and then we pay to treat them for the medical problems they have as a result.
Are there some people who have truly legitimate reasons for gaining and then not losing the weight? Absolutely, and I know one such person. I also know several more, and see many more in the aisles of Walmart, who simply buy poorly, eat poorly, and live poorly. Sometimes these people don't even walk to shop -- they wheel around the store in motorized carts, tossing ice cream and ding-dongs into their basket as they speed along.
Being poor can't make you fat. Being uneducated, lazy, depressed, impulsive, and/or a poor decision-maker... yes, that could. It's not simple cause/effect. There are plenty of cheap and healthy options out there, but for whatever reason (or excuse) they might have, too many ignore them.
Spaceopera, while I agree that veggies are very important, you have to becareful of only surviving on veggies. Meat contains essential fatty acids, and essential amino acids and veggies simply do not. They are called essential for a reason. I have never know a vegan that wasn't supplementing to get these in their diet. I stated from the begining that Meat and veggies should be the sole sources on the plates. Potatoes can be consumed in small portions, as with anything honestly, but that isn't why we are discussing this is it. To be quite honest, portion control in this country is a big problem. Sugar and carbs lead to cravings of more sugar and carbs. It is a simple fact.
Of course there is a direct correlation between food budgets and weight. Lean meats, salmon, fresh produce and fresh fruits cost far more than bags of cookies, bread, other starches and ice cream. And it is a downward spiral with age, as well: Consider all the very elderly who live on ice cream and cookies because they are filling, taste good to their taste buds and are quickly and easily served; the same with salty soups.
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