The Heritage Foundation | Robert E. Rector | Nov. 13, 2007
What is rarely discussed is that the government’s own data show that the overwhelming majority of food insecure adults are, like most adult Americans, overweight or obese. Among adult males experiencing food insecurity, fully 70 percent are overweight or obese. Nearly three-quarters of adult women experiencing food insecurity are either overweight or obese, and nearly half (45 percent) are obese. Virtually no food insecure adults are underweight.
Food insecure men are slightly less likely to be overweight or obese than men who are food secure (70 percent compared to 75 percent). But food insecure women are actually more likely to be obese or overweight than are women who are food secure (73 percent compared to 64 percent).
Eating Too Much, Not Too Little
Thus, the government’s own data show that, even though they may have brief episodes of reduced food intake, most adults in food insecure households actually consume too much, not too little, food. To improve health, policies must be devised to encourage these individuals to avoid chronic over-consumption of calories and to spread their food intake more evenly over the course of each month to avoid episodic shortfalls.
Yet most proposed policy responses to food insecurity call for giving low-income persons more money to purchase food despite the fact that most low-income persons, like most Americans, already eat too much. Such policies are likely to make the current situation worse, not better. One commonly proposed policy, for example, is to expand participation in the Food Stamp program. Participation in the Food Stamp program, however, does not appear to reduce food insecurity. Households receiving food stamps do not have improved food security compared to similar households with the same non-food stamp income who do not participate in the program. Moreover, participation in the Food Stamp program does not appear to increase diet quality. Compared to similar households who do not receive food stamps but have the same non-food stamp income, households receiving food stamps do not consume more fruits and vegetables but do, unfortunately, consume more added sugars and fats.
While the Food Stamp program has little positive effect on food quality, research funded by the USDA shows the program is effective in increasing obesity. Low-income women who participate in the Food Stamp program are substantially more likely to be obese than women in households with the same non-food stamp income who did not receive food stamps. Over the long term, food stamp receipt was found to increase obesity in men as well.
Developing a rational policy on nutrition and poor Americans will require dispelling common misconceptions concerning poverty and obesity. For example, one common misconception is that poor people become obese because they are forced, due to a lack of financial resources, to eat too many junk foods that are high in fat and added sugar. According to this theory, poor persons struggle to obtain sufficient calories to maintain themselves and are forced to rely on junk foods as the cheapest source of calories, but because junk foods have high “energy density” (more calories per ounce of food content), these foods paradoxically induce a tendency to overeat and thereby cause weight gain.
One problem with this theory is that junk foods are not a particularly cheap source of calories. For example, soft drinks are high in added sugar and are generally associated with weight gain, but as a source of calories, brand name soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi are often more expensive (in terms of calories per dollar) than milk. Snack foods such as potato chips and donuts cost two to five times more per calorie than healthier staples such as beans, rice, and pasta. Families truly seeking to maximize calories per dollar of food expenditure would focus not on junk and snack foods but on traditional low-cost staples such as beans, rice, flour, pasta, and milk. These foods are not only less expensive but actually have below-average energy density and therefore a lower potential to promote weight gain.
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