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New Research: Poverty Linked to Obesity

New Research: Poverty Linked to Obesity


Poverty and obesity are strongly linked because the poor cannot afford to eat a healthier diet, according to new research.

“It’s a question of money,” said Adam Drewnowski, the director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more.”

Whole grains, fish and fresh vegetables and fruits are far more expensive than foods with refined grains, added sugars and added fat, Drewnowski wrote in a study for Washington’s School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

“It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices,” Drewnowski said. “It is the opposite of choice. People are not poor by choice, and they become obese primarily because they are poor.”

Feeding a family of five on a limited income usually means that the cook will rely on “filler foods.”

“Families stretch food by adding low-cost starches such as rice and noodles,” said Anne Hoisington, a family- and community-development instructor with the Oregon State University Extension Service. “They’re going for quantity versus quality.”

Packaged noodles, toaster pastries and fast-food meals can be prepared quickly and are cheap and filling.

“A mother will tell us, ‘A bunch of bananas cost $4. My kids will eat them in one day. I can’t afford it,”’ Hoisington said. “Top Ramen is 10 for $1.”

Eating patterns also contribute to obesity, especially in mothers.

“Mothers cut back their portion so the kids can have more,” Hoisington said. “When there is food again, she overcompensates.”

Fluctuating between weeks of not getting enough food and periods of overeating causes the metabolism to malfunction, she said. “They’re shifting into low gear like a hibernating bear,” Hoisington said.

Low-income families also lack access to physical activity, said Anna Galas, a nutrition and education program faculty member with OSU’s Lane County Extension Services.

“Often, they’re not in safe neighborhoods,” she said. “There’s no sidewalks or parks nearby, and bus lines aren’t easily accessible.”

A recent national survey found that spontaneous physical activity among children has declined significantly in the past decade. Although 27 percent of children ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, only 6 percent play on their own, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in the study.

Kids should get at least 60 minutes of exercise each day, Galas said. But parents with little money are too busy trying to make ends meet, she said.

“It’s not a high enough priority in their life,” Galas said of exercise. “They’re doing the best they can to get by.”

— Associated Press

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