Poverty's Diet Strain

Poverty is more than a fiscal problem. It can also affect health. Canadian researchers have determined that poor households end up eating nutritionally risky diets. Alan Mozes HealthDay News reports:
The new study is the first to show that food insecurity directly translates into poor nutrition. It also suggests that in such homes, adults and teens, rather than very young children, are the most likely to be subsisting on diets low in vitamins, minerals, fruits, vegetables, grains and meat.

"Over the long term, [food insecurity] could be expected to precipitate and complicate diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease," cautioned study co-author, Sharon Kirkpatrick, a doctoral candidate in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto…

…The study highlights similar estimates for 2006, suggesting that 12.6 million U.S. households experience food insecurity, while 4.6 million have one or more family members going without food. Recent Canadian research indicates that just over 9 percent of households are food-insecure.

Against such numbers, Kirkpatrick and Tarasuk set out to analyze eating habits, detailed in interviews conducted by Statistics Canada between 2004 and 2005. The survey included 35,000 Canadians between the ages of 1 and 70 drawn from all socioeconomic groups.
The poor—I hate using that term—do take quite the health hit. It comes up in the news all the time. Let’s look at some previous reports. First, from the Associated Press, Why are U.S. Kids Obese. Here’s a bit:
"The environment that they live in matters," said Lisa Powell of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who studied restaurant and food store options in the neighborhoods and food-related television advertising aimed at teens.

She said when people cannot get to supermarkets but instead must rely on the convenience stores that proliferate in many poor neighborhoods, families end up eating less healthy food.
Next up, Paige Parker of The Oregonian tells us why poor kids are at a high-risk of packing on extra summer vacation pounds. Take a look:
A new study highlighted the summer weight-gain phenomenon among young children. Researchers in the Midwest looked at the body mass index, which relates height to weight, of 5,380 students. They followed them for two years, from kindergarten through first grade, and found the average index grew more than twice as quickly over the summer than during the school year.

Children of the working poor may be especially at risk because they are left indoors while their parents are at jobs. While at home, kids eat and drink what they want, says Dr. Jennifer Bass, a pediatrician who chairs a national pediatricians special-interest group on obesity. Bass estimates as many as 30 percent of her patients are overweight.
Now Randy Dotinga of HealthDay News explains that low-income children face a heighten chance of being obese, even before they are out of diapers. Check it out:
"The message is that we're seeing overweight and obesity at younger ages than we thought possible," said study author Rachel Tolbert Kimbro, a health and society scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "It's a particular problem in lower-income communities, and it's something we need to keep an eye on and prevent as much as possible."

According to Kimbro, there's been little research into weight problems among very young children. But, studies have shown high rates of obesity among older children and teenagers.

In the new study, the researchers examined surveys of parents who had children from 1998 to 2000 in 20 large U.S. cities. The parents lived in urban areas and were poor.
Finally, this report looks out way the poor and immigrants living in New York City are waist-deep in the diabetes epidemic. More from N.R. Kleinfield of The New York Times:
New York, perhaps more than any other big city, harbors all the ingredients for a continued epidemic. It has large numbers of the poor and obese, who are at higher risk. It has a growing population of Latinos, who get the disease in disproportionate numbers, and of Asians, who can develop it at much lower weights than people of other races.

It is a city of immigrants, where newcomers eating American diets for the first time are especially vulnerable. It is also yielding to the same forces that have driven diabetes nationally: an aging population, a food supply spiked with sugars and fats, and a culture that promotes overeating and discourages exercise.
Frightening news, no doubt it compounds when you consider that most low-income families either have limited or no insurance. Makes you wonder how much better the state of American healthcare would be if everyone starting eating a nutrient-dense diet!
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Comments (11) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
LLouise - February 22, 2008 12:17 PM

Excellent blog entry! This is a major problem. I think, most people who are now finally catching on to the rise in childhood obesity, still don't see the poverty connection. It's when it starts to hit the "average" people that it gets national attention. Another way we sweep the poor under the rug :(. This has been an issue for I don't know how long, but I remember it when I was a child. Having not been too wealthy, myself growing up, I recall eating unhealthfully at times, because that's all there was available. It definitely contributed to weight gain in my immediate family. And I've heard people say, "Why are these 'poor people' so fat?" connoting suspicion.

Many of these people buy cheap bulk foods. This is convenient, inexpensive, and then they do a lot of frying because it makes it more "satisfying," and filling. And, of course, the everpresent golden arches and other junkfood places on every other corner in their neighborhoods... Vicious cycle,for sure :( Oh, and the foodstuffs in schools doesn't help! Some of these lunch programs, cafeteria foods, etc. are just as bad. Though some of the "upscale" schools now have fresh, and even some organic food available!

Gerry Pugliese - February 22, 2008 12:38 PM

Hey Llouise-

This issue boggles my mind a bit. I totally get that junk food is very cheap and thats why low-income families stockpile it. It gets a little confusing for me when you look at low-income immigrants.

My mom and both sides of my grandparents are off-the-boat Italians and when they moved here they didn't have a lot of money, but they never really Americanized to the point of disease-promoting diet. They bought lots of fruits and veggies and knew great ways to "stretch" them out. Heck, me and my mom still regulary eat spinach and beans, and, a giant pot of it probably only costs about 4 bucks!


rost0037 - February 22, 2008 12:50 PM

It's not just $$--I work with low-income immigrant (mainly Hispanic) families as a nutrition educator, and yes, $$ for fruits and veggies is a problem. But many of them will not buy any veggies, buy fast food, and spend money on junk food completely unnecessarily--soda, Sunny Delight, Kool-aid, Red Bull, Gatorade. For toddlers! Water is far cheaper, the healthier thing is cheaper in this case. But these foods are addictive and it's easier to keep the kid hooked than be a parent, I suppose.

I do see many families that don't like junk food and want to eat well, but can only afford beans and rice--it really pains me. But the families that somehow find a way to buy a bunch of unneccessary junk are very frustrating.

Gerry Pugliese - February 22, 2008 1:06 PM

Hey Rost0037-

Great comment. How do you think social factors--i.e. pressure to Americanize--compound the problem? Or do they?


rost0037 - February 22, 2008 3:40 PM

Hmm, good question. Everything American is usually seen as better (the most painful example of this is formula--they often think it has more vitamins! And Americans are very hostile to women who nurse in public). But Mexico has plenty of its own junk--For example, Jumex is a "juice" wiht a low percentage of pasteurized juice with sugar added, Sabritas is a popular chip brand, Bimbo makes junk breads and pastries. So if you go to a Mexican store hoping to find some produce, you'll find it, but you'll find a lot of junk, too! I'd say our lifestyle has already been exported to many places.

There was a study a few years ago showing that the longer an immigrant had been here, the higher the risk of diabetes, heart disease, etc. So Americanization does seem to be negative for people's health. The healthiest people I see are usually the least educated, from rural areas. They are used to eating very simply--rice, beans, vegetables, fruits, occasional meat, and some oils (which is useful when you're working on a farm).

LLouise - February 22, 2008 4:22 PM

Gerr, I meant junkfood is cheap, yes, but also the bulk foods like buying huge bags of nutrient-deficient flour and white potatoes, rice, etc. because they are filling and can be stretched...AND not to mention the benevolent government cheese distribution! All that dairy so generously "given to help the poor" does more the bodies politic, corporate, and lobby good than the bodies of the people!

I agree about back in the day, it was, in some ways, easier to eat better. It was the '50s with the introduction of tv dinners that seems to have started the downward trend. What "progress" has done to us! At the same time, content of those tv dinners were miniscule compared to the super-sized junk of today. Then the convenience factor just exploded.

The pressure to be "American" is HUGE. . Excellent point. The desire to assimilate is strong, especially with the young, and is understandable. And especially with the advertising as you mentioned.
As well, this is not just a problem with Mexican immigrants nor just the Latino community.
Of course some people just make bad choices, but the reality is, the majority of Americans also make these same bad food choices, and it's for largely the same reason: Lack of education. And I don't just mean formal education. As we all know, lacking knowledge of nutrition is rampant amongst all of us. The other factors affecting the "poor" just compounds it for them or adds to their struggles.

islandveggie - February 23, 2008 3:11 PM

Sometimes people just have to make the choice to do without some luxuries in order to eat better.
As a single mother with a VERY low income (less than 10,000/year)I found that by living out of town I could save on rent and have land to grow a few vegetables. By not having a car I saved on insurance as well as gas and got lots of exercise walking 1/2 hour to the bus stop. By passing on cable I saved money and my children developed wonderful imaginations.
We eat 90% organic fuhrman style foods and I have extra money every month to put away for RESPs and to send my children to a waldorf school.
What I am saying is that peole need to educate themselves or be educated at school/ in the community ect. upon what is truly necessary in their lives and what is not in order to make a lasting difference.

SueC - February 24, 2008 10:12 AM

Let's not forget that many supermarket chains do not want to locate in poorer neighborhoods. Accessibility of food and transportation to a market are huge issues. There are many corner stores that have very limited fresh food if any, but tons of packaged processed "food" for under a dollar. The ease with which this can be purchased on the way home from school, etc contributes to the nutrient deficiency.

Local governments do not do much to promote healthy eating (even healthier SAD, if there is such a thing) by helping or inviting markets to open in those neighborhoods. There is little outreach regarding nutrition or at least to cut back on the amount of fast food, processed food and other junk.

The school districts have the worst food (all fried brown things, milk, other processed sugar laden crap) and there is no incentive or push to change this. At least they got the soda out of the schools.

Although farmers markets and the CSA movement is big locally, the connection of poverty and nutrition has not been made or explored enough to make a difference at this point in time.

Think about food pantries and food collections at holiday times. All canned and packaged food. There really needs to be a food czar or someone to help localities make sure that fresh food is available to all.

I listened to the teleconference Dr. F has with John Robbins and he said that the apple growers couldn't even have 1 apple for every person in the country b/c so much of the farm land is given over to soy and corn for animal feed.

stephanie ali - February 24, 2008 8:27 PM

I would like to comment on this since I would be labeled as "poor." I am a single mom with 5 kids and we have horrible eating habits. I rely on food stamps(even with a full time job) to buy most of my groceries. When I buy the "right" foods that Dr. Furhman suggests it IS more expensive. But I think when there is a will, there is a way.(to eat healthy on a budget) THe main problem is food addiction with junk food. (it's comfort food) Also, in my household, there is no money for entertainment, but making a big, fried hardy dinner is a treat. It is a struggle. But do you think that if the low income community was educated on the right way of eating, would they change? There might be other factors involved that keep people in a junk food rut.

LLouise - February 25, 2008 1:04 PM

Excellent, IslandVeggie!

Great points, Sue!

Steph, yes, and I think everyone is vulnerable to addiction! That is why I stated above, that, yes, we ALL are capable of continuing to (consciously) make bad choices, not just "the poor" (though they and children are the most vulnerable).
But if the community had the knowledge and the access to good food, most would make better choices...It's seen in certain areas like in the inner cities here in Los Angeles area: a few "community" gardens have sprung up and they folks DO love it, and they eat the fresh foods. Knowledge+Access NOW :D!

I recall watching a program about food access for the poor communities, and what struck me was how some of the teens who commented had no idea what certain foods actually looked like! In the markets in their areas, the produce sections had the worst fruits and vegetables and few options. It was shocking to see. Obviously, they got the poorer-quality...not to mention no organic foods. I have shopped in some bigger markets in poorer areas, and, while they have more produce, the quality is lacking. Lots of packaged foods...and the design of the stores also lead you to the aisles of processed junk and meat instead of the produce. And the banners?! All for "tasty" sweet junk.

But, yes, culture, tradition, comfort, addictions, advertising, money (the exploiters and the exploited) -- all play a role. Food revolution is needed.

Good luck to you and your family! Your will, WILL find a way. All the best to you.

islandveggie - February 25, 2008 11:25 PM

Suec, I love to christmas program in my town. You can get a food hamper and/or $50 grocery money for each member of your household (store coupon). Must be prooved, no alcohol, tobacco or lotto of course! My bank also gives away a free turkey to each member should you want one. Good old Vancouver Island. I love Ye!

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