For the longest time, the coexistence of food insecurity and obesity was labeled a paradox. But now, the link between the two is undeniable.
Many consider food insecurity the result of both a dwindling economy and social disadvantage. But what is food insecurity? It’s defined as the lack of consistent access to enough healthy, adequate food due to household-level economic and social conditions. The research further credits food insecurity as the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
What is Obesity?
The World Health Organisation defines obesity as a complex, chronic disease that leads to abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may be a health hazard. As a result of an energy imbalance, obesity is typically determined by your Body Mass Index (BMI). This is a calculation that takes a person’s weight and height into account when measuring their body size. Physicians use this calculation to determine whether a person is obese or not. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a BMI of 30 or higher is the benchmark for obesity in adults.
How is it determined if you are obese?
While BMI is the most common method used to diagnose obesity, other more accurate measures of body fat and body fat distribution include:
- Blood tests to examine cholesterol and glucose levels
- Waist-to-hip comparisons
- Screening tests, such as ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRI scans
Health risks of obesity
With about 13% of the world’s population being obese, obesity can lead to more than simple weight gain. Obesity has been linked to a number of health complications, many of which are life-threatening, including:
- Type 2 Diabetes: As it affects how the body uses insulin to control blood sugar levels, it can raise one’s risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.
- Stroke and Heart Disease: Obesity increases your likelihood of experiencing high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels. These conditions are linked to strokes and heart disease.
- Cancer: Obesity increases your likelihood of developing cancer of the breast, colon, ovary, and prostate, amongst others.
- Arthritis: Obesity increases the stress that is placed on weight-bearing joints, and also promotes inflammation within the body. As a result, it increases your likelihood of arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Causes of Obesity
Obesity can occur for many reasons. These include genetic, metabolic, behavioral, and hormonal influences on body weight. However, it usually occurs when you consume more calories than you burn. A diet that is high in calories and lacking in fruit and vegetables can lead to excessive weight gain. This is because your body ends up storing these excess calories as fat.
Foods that increase your chances of obesity include:
- refined grains (such as white bread and rice)
- sugar-sweetened beverages (such as sodas and fruit drinks)
- potato chips
- processed meat
These foods tend to be had in high volumes in food-insecure households.
Food insecurity is a national issue. Over 34 million people in the United States experiencing it. It can be influenced by a number of factors, including income, employment, and race.
In fact, in 2020, it was recorded that black non-Hispanic households were over 2 times more likely to experience food insecurity, with an average of 21.7% compared to the national average of 10.5%. With this in mind, we see that nearly 48% of Black non-Hispanic in the U.S. are obese, compared to the 32.6% average amongst white people.
What are the dangers of food insecurity?
Adults who live in food-insecure households are shown to be more prone to health dangers, including:
- Infectious diseases: Studies show that people living in food-insecure households are more likely to be hospitalized for infectious diseases. Factors influencing this include a poor diet, which leads to medication non-adherence.
- Poor oral health: Deficiencies in one’s diet, which are common in food-insecure households, affect nearly every structure in the mouth, from bad breath to enamel loss. For example, a diet that is high in sugar is associated with a greater risk of cavities, leading to dental erosion and periodontal disease.
- Chronic Conditions: Living in a food-insecure household increases your chances of being impacted by depression, anxiety, hypertension, heart disease, and chronic pain. In fact, the number of chronic conditions for adults in food-insecure households is 18% higher than those in food-secure households.
Now, this raises the question: How does not having enough food lead to obesity?
The Link between Food Insecurity and Obesity
A 2017 study found that children from food-insecure households were 5 times more likely to be obese than those from food-secure households. Food insecurity can increase one’s chances of being obese in several ways, namely:
Lack of nutrition
Healthy foods are expensive and perishable. This leads to the purchasing of less expensive foods, such as refined grains with added sugars and fat. As these are inexpensive and readily available in low-income communities, there is a high rate of consumption of these foods. This then leads to weight gain and subsequent obesity.
Also, low-income communities tend to not have access to full-service grocery stores and farmers’ markets. As a result, they cannot often purchase items like high-quality fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This also limits the food they can purchase at their local convenience stores.
Food insecurity has led to an increase in binge eating in a cycle known as “Feast and Famine”. This refers to a fluctuation in food availability in food-insecure households. Experiencing this can lead to eating less, skipping meals to stretch food budgets whilst in a food insecure period. This is subsequently followed by binge eating when in a food secure period.
A study was conducted to examine the association between momentary food security levels and subsequent binge-eating symptoms within food-insecure households. In the study, the participants, previously living in food-insecure homes switched to food security for 14 days. It was observed that the participants showcased greater binge-eating symptoms during the course of the study. This can also be likened to a phenomenon known as the “insurance hypothesis”.
Low-income families have been proven to experience high stress, depression, and anxiety levels due to the financial pressures of poor housing, low-wage work, and food insecurity. There is a strong correlation between depression and over-eating, and since food-insecure households tend to purchase refined foods due to their low cost, this leads to increased weight gain due to binge eating associated with depression and anxiety.
Also, increased levels of stress lead to the dysregulation of insulin, ghrelin, and cortisol in your body, which leads to an increased appetite for high-calorie foods often associated with obesity.
How can we address food insecurity?
This global issue is rooted in social and economic disparities, so what can we do as individuals to help? Here are a few things we can fight against food insecurity:
- Reducing our meat consumption: About 40% of grain crops are used to feed livestock and fish, on a global scale. According to FedHealth, if this grain was used to feed humans as opposed to livestock, hunger could be alleviated for 925 million people.
- Volunteering for food programs: We have many outreach programs that focus on feeding low-income communities and food-insecure households. All they need is a helping hand to ensure that they’re able to help as many people as possible. So whether it be through donating your extra groceries, volunteering at these organizations can help.
It can therefore be said that food insecurity is linked to obesity because of the high-calorie food which is more affordable and accessible to food-insecure households. Also, due to the limited time, knowledge, and resources that food-insecure households and populations experience, they are not able to engage in healthy eating and exercise to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
While obesity has been linked to overconsumption for so long, we cannot ignore the fact that food insecurity plays a major role in the extent to which one consumes food, which subsequently has an effect on their health and weight.
- Brown, A.G., Esposito, L.E., Fisher, R.A., Nicastro, H.L., Tabor, D.C. and Walker, J.R., 2019. Food insecurity and obesity: research gaps, opportunities, and challenges. Translational Behavioral Medicine, 9(5), pp.980-987.
- Ashe, K.M. and Lapane, K.L., 2018. Food insecurity and obesity: exploring the role of social support. Journal of women’s health, 27(5), pp.651-658.