Food Insecurity and Obesity

January 03, 2013

Food insecure adults have a much higher chance of being obese compared to food secure adults, according to a recent study from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia.

Food insecure adults have a much higher chance of being obese compared to food secure adults, according to a recent study from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia. Researchers found that one in three food insecure adults were obese.

Both obesity and food insecurity are huge public health concerns that have far reaching consequences for overall health. Approximately one in three U.S. adults are obese. Approximately one in seven U.S. households are food insecure. Food insecurity is the inability to secure adequate food due to lack of household resources, and people who are food insecure are more likely to have low nutrient intake, diabetes and depression.

“Low-income populations are more likely to be food insecure. The prevalence of obesity is higher among low-income populations because low-income households are more likely to report food insecurity; low-income families are more likely to live in neighborhoods identified as food deserts where there is poor access to healthy food outlets (e.g., supermarkets) and in neighborhoods where there is a high density of fast food outlets and convenience stores1 (and poor access to supermarkets is associated with increased risk of obesity2), and low-income families are more likely to reside in areas where there is inadequate access to safe and/or affordable options for physical activity,” says Liping Pan, MD, MPH, Epidemiologist, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although there have been a number of studies looking at the association between obesity and food insecurity, this is the first study to look at this relationship from the perspective of a redesigned food insecurity question included in the BRFSS Social Context Module that asks if respondents feel stress associated with the affordability of nutritious meals. Researchers looked at responses from 12 states, and among them the prevalence of obesity was 27.1% overall, 25.2% among food secure adults and 35.1% among food insecure adults. Among those same 12 states, the percentage of food insecure respondents was 19% overall.

Generally, as household income decreased, the prevalence of food insecurity increased. Rates of obesity were also significantly higher in certain regions. Based on the self-reported data in BRFSS, in 2011, the South had the highest prevalence of obesity (29.5%), followed by the Midwest (29.0%), the Northeast (25.3%) and the West (24.3%). Additionally, compared with adults who are food secure, food insecure adults had higher prevalence of obesity among women, non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks, adults with some college education, a household income of $25,000 or $50,000 to $74,000, and adults with none or two children in their household.

“We found an association between food insecurity and obesity among women, but not among men. Two potential explanations include maternal deprivation and differences in psychosocial consequences. Some women may sacrifice their own nutrition resources to protect their children from hunger or malnutrition and the prevalence of physiologic consequences of food insecurity, such as stress and depression, is higher among women. Some of these physiologic consequences are associated with obesity only among women,” says Dr. Pan.

More research is needed says Pan, but this study suggests a need to increase access to affordable healthy foods for all adults. Pan says intensified nationwide efforts to address obesity will be supported by recent federal initiatives such as the Let’s Move! Campaign and Communities Putting Prevention to Work program. These initiatives mobilize public and private resources and partnerships, provide guidance and funding to states and communities to change state and local environments and policies related to diet and physical activity, and help reduce financial barriers to adopting healthy lifestyles.

“Policy and environmental approaches that promote access to healthy foods (e.g., supermarket, community gardens, farmers markets, etc.) and physical activity (e.g., joint use policies, complete streets initiatives) may help to prevent obesity,” says Pan. “While policy and environmental approaches can support individuals' decisions regarding eating and physical activity, individual choices regarding what to eat and whether or not to exercise also play an important role in obesity prevention.”

 1Adler NE, Stewart J, 2009.
 2Morland, Wing, Diez Roux, Poole, 2002; Powell et al, 2007.