Rising food prices are likely to worsen U.S. obesity rate
BY ALFRED LUBRANO The Philadelphia Inquirer 5/16/08
PHILADELPHIA -- Some of the fattest people in America are among the poorest.
And with food prices rising, the problem is likely to get worse.
Tianna Gaines, 28, who describes herself as impoverished and obese, knows this. At 5-foot-3 and 242 pounds, she lives on public assistance and eats junk food because it's cheap and more readily available in her Philadelphia neighborhood than carrots and apples.
Besides, said Gaines, a mother of three, "I don't have the money for Bally's fitness clubs. And I can't run here. They shoot you."
More poor people may suffer Gaines' fate, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicting food prices will be up 4.5% throughout the year because of high fuel costs, weather problems and the growing diversion of corn crops to make ethanol. Globally, prices will rise nearly 50%, according to the president's Council of Economic Advisers.
"The food crisis will make obesity and attendant diabetes even more rampant," said University of Washington epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski. "Fruits, vegetables and fish are becoming luxury goods completely out of reach of many people. Consumption of cheap food will only grow.
"Obesity is the toxic consequence of a failing economy."
Although more people from every economic background are becoming obese around the world, poor people are still outpacing those better off.
A recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that women in poverty were 50% more likely to be obese than those with higher socioeconomic status.
In U.S. households making less than $15,000 a year, 31% of the women are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In households making more than $50,000 annually, 17% are obese.
University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist Shiriki Kumanyika and other investigators found that poor 15- to 17-year-olds -- black or white, male or female -- were 50% more likely to carry excessive weight than other teens. And a study by Drewnowski last year showed that obesity rates in poor Seattle neighborhoods were 600% greater than in rich areas.
Healthy choices in short supply
Poor people frequently live in neighborhoods with few supermarkets. They rely on corner stores and convenience marts for groceries, said Carey Morgan, director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
These are great places to buy chips and soda, not so good for asparagus.
Concentrating on filling their stomachs, poor, hungry people go for high-fat, high-sugar foods.
"They're not thinking about health -- just getting through the day," said Mariana Chilton, a hunger expert at the Drexel University School of Public Health. She is the principal investigator for the Philadelphia GROW Project, which deals with nutrition and physical development in poor children.
All that processed food is relatively inexpensive -- artificially so. Researchers say that many junk foods contain high-fructose corn syrup, made from government-subsidized corn crops. Federal help keeps the cost of syrup-containing foods such as sodas, fries and even burgers down. Drewnowski said that healthful, unsubsidized foods like spinach cost five times more per calorie to produce, driving up the price.
Food stamps are supposed to help. But Chilton's research shows that the allotments families in Philadelphia receive are not accounting for higher food prices.
As a result, families often run out of food stamps by the second or third week of the month, Chilton said.
The hunger can be excruciating, said Gaines, who lets her three children, all under age 4, eat whatever food is left after the stamps are gone.
It makes her all the more voracious at the beginning of each month, when new stamps arrive. "You go without eating, then gorge," Gaines said. "Then you go to sleep with a full stomach. That's how the weight picks up."
It works that way for lots of people. And with food inflation, even cheap foods are getting more expensive.
"What choices can poor people afford now?" asked Stella Volpe, a nutritionist at the University of Pennsylvania's nursing school. "Will their diets get even worse, and will hard times contribute to more obesity?"
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