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Why Low-Income and Food Insecure People are Vulnerable to Overweight and Obesity

Food Research and Action Center

Due to the additional risk factors associated with poverty, food insecure and low-income people are especially vulnerable to obesity. More specifically, obesity among food insecure people – as well as among low-income people – occurs in part because they are subject to the same influences as other Americans (e.g., more sedentary lifestyles, increased portion sizes), but also because they face unique challenges in adopting healthful behaviors, as described below.

Limited resources and lack of access to healthy, affordable foods.

  • Low-income neighborhoods frequently lack full-service grocery stores and farmers’ markets where residents can buy a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products (Beaulac et al., 2009; Larson et al., 2009). Instead, residents – especially those without reliable transportation – may be limited to shopping at small neighborhood convenience and corner stores, where fresh produce and low-fat items are limited, if available at all. One of the most comprehensive reviews of U.S. studies examining neighborhood disparities in food access found that neighborhood residents with better access to supermarkets and limited access to convenience stores tend to have healthier diets and reduced risk for obesity (Larson et al., 2009).
    When available, healthy food is often more expensive, whereas refined grains, added sugars, and fats are generally inexpensive and readily available in low-income communities (Drewnowski, 2010; Drewnowski et al., 2007; Drewnowski & Specter, 2004; Monsivais & Drewnowski, 2007; Monsivais & Drewnowski, 2009). Households with limited resources to buy enough food often try to stretch their food budgets by purchasing cheap, energy-dense foods that are filling – that is, they try to maximize their calories per dollar in order to stave off hunger (Basiotis & Lino, 2002; DiSantis et al., 2013; Drewnowski & Specter, 2004; Drewnowski, 2009). While less expensive, energy-dense foods typically have lower nutritional quality and, because of overconsumption of calories, have been linked to obesity (Hartline-Grafton et al., 2009; Howarth et al., 2006; Kant & Graubard, 2005).
    When available, healthy food – especially fresh produce – is often of poorer quality in lower income neighborhoods, which diminishes the appeal of these items to buyers (Andreyeva et al., 2008; Zenk et al., 2006).
  • Low-income communities have greater availability of fast food restaurants, especially near schools (Fleischhacker et al., 2011; Larson et al., 2009; Simon et al., 2008). These restaurants serve many energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods at relatively low prices. Fast food consumption is associated with a diet high in calories and low in nutrients, and frequent consumption may lead to weight gain (Bowman & Vinyard, 2004; Pereira et al., 2005).

Read the full report.