The Link: Food Insecurity + Chronic Health

Though my background is in kinesiology rather than nutrition, I was always fascinated by it’s ties to community health during my studies at college. The topic that drew my attention most was that of the American food system and its effects on epidemiology. I was surprised to learn of the relationship between food insecurity and obesity, and increasingly frustrated that a preventable problem was being allowed to fester and spread because of politics and money. I believe America’s health demands a multiple domain approach, including our food system.

Food Insecurity in America

Food security is defined as access by all people at all times to enough nutrient rich food for an active, healthy life. A food secure home is one that lives without hunger or fear of starvation. A critical component to a healthy life is nutrition. Many people go hungry every day despite a surplus of food production. Many people around the world are malnourished due to the lack of a proper meal. The idea of having enough to eat is a simple enough concept here in America that it has become taken for granted by most. When people think about food insecurity and poverty, they picture a rundown village or starving child in a faraway developing country. What most people don’t realize, though, is that food insecurity is a serious problem happening right in their backyard. In fact, hunger and food insecurity exists in virtually every community in the United States.

Ten years after the onset of the recession, hunger remains high in the United States. The financial and economic crisis that erupted in 2008 caused a significant increase in poverty and food insecurity in the United States. Today, 1 in 7 Americans struggle with getting enough to eat. That’s 48 million people who are unable to provide sufficient meals for themselves and their families. But food insecurity in a household goes further than just hunger. A shortage of sufficient nutrients can lead to nutritional deficiencies, social inhibitions, and psychological damage. So much of our culture is centered on food, leading to a large impact when an individual is left to go without it.

A large contributor to food insecurity in America is the price gap between healthy, wholesome foods and processed foods. With limited resources, food insecure families often resort to low-cost, low nutrient-dense food as they sacrifice diet quality to ensure that they have some kind of food to avoid the physiological pangs of hunger. An individual struggling with food insecurity has an average budget of only five dollars a day for food. Nutritious foods are expensive and near inaccessible for people living on a low budget, while junk food is inexpensive and widely abundant. Fast food restaurants boast of Dollar Menus and Pick Three deals, offering foods high in fat, sodium, and calories at cheap prices that are specifically marketed to keep you hungry and coming back for more, beginning a dreadful cycle.

Meanwhile, a water bottle or a salad at these same restaurants could cost up to three times as much as their less healthy counterparts. In the Feeding America’s 2014 report, 79% of food insecure households were purchasing cheaper, unhealthy foods just to have enough on the table. These choices often lead to an increase in undernourishment and chronic disease.

Ties to Disease

Low socioeconomic status appears to be a general risk factor for both food insecurity and obesity, as food insecurity disproportionately affects poverty-level households.

The staggering increase in individuals classified as obese in America has resulted in the terming of the Obesity Epidemic. Approximately two-thirds [68%] of Americans are either overweight or obese [Body Mass Index ≥ 25kg/m²] and more than a third [35%] are obese [Body Mass Index ≥ 30kg/m²]. Additionally, nearly one-third [32%] of American children and adolescents are either overweight or obese.

As stated above, food insecurity often drives people to survive off of cheap, processed foods, leading to increases in poor health. There is a positive correlation between food insecurity and obesity. The lack of nutrients and heightened amounts of fats and calories leads to dangerous amounts of weight gain. The extra mass puts stress on the body, mostly on weight bearing areas, such as the knees, ankles, and feet. Common foot problems associated with weight gain include posterior tibial tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, arthritis, ball-of-foot pain, and fractures and sprains of the feet and ankles. Extra weight can damage the joints and tendons of the foot and ankle.

In addition to the joints, the extra weight also puts stress on the breast plate. Imagine laying on your back with a twenty-pound weight resting on your chest. Now, try to breath with that weight constantly bearing down on your lungs. Individuals struggling with obesity have to work considerably harder just to breath, let alone walk about and perform activities of daily living.

Other diseases can also manifest from the onset of obesity. Excess body fat, particularly when accumulated around the abdomen, is associated with many chronic conditions, including hypertension, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and certain cancers. What makes the threat of obesity, and it’s related diseases, so unique and frustrating is that is is preventable!

While there are certainly a number of other factors contributing to the obesity epidemic, including genetics, environment, and sedentary lifestyles-side note, 30% of states do not require physical education for children-there is no denying the American diet holds much of the blame. Perhaps most notably with the McDonald’s “Supersize Me” movement in the 50’s, meal proportions have greatly increased from what they used to be, which in turn has increased the amount an individual eats per meal. The average American eats one meal outside of the home daily, mostly due to convenience or cost issues. The inaccessibility of healthy, nutrient rich foods is the biggest driver behind the obesity epidemic. If we as a country ever wish to move forward to improve our health and invest in a brighter future, we need to accept that it’s time for a change.

Making a Change

Research from Harvard School of Public Law shows that a healthier diet costs approximately $1.50 a day more than an unhealthy diet. This is because we subsidize to industrial agriculture, paying a group of behind-the-scenes politicians while they get rich from manufacturing cheap foods. Due to this process, over 52% of the crop land in America is used for growing corn and soy beans, crops that are easily grown and treated, yet have little nutritional value. These products are then used to make cheap, processed foods such as chips, soda, and candies. In contrast, only 2% of crop lands in America are used for wholesome fruit and vegetable growth. The fact that it is cheaper for a person living on limited means to walk into a fast food joint and order a cheeseburger rather than be able to obtain a balanced, nutritious meal, is a huge red flag in the current food system.

To fix our broken food system and diminish the price gap between healthy and processed foods, we need to first fix our federal food policy and replace it with a viable plan, designed to bring healthy, affordable foods to all Americans. One way to do this would be to reduce food waste. In the United States, 30-40% of food produced never makes it to the table. This is due to damage the food undergoes during transport and regulations dictating the inability to sell abnormal produce. If we could implement a policy that changed those regulations, more produce could be sold in more stores at cheaper prices.

A similar program was launched, with much success, by Intermarché, located in France, in their promotion Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables [pictures above]. This way, consumers get the same quality product at more affordable prices, while the farmers get money for products that are usually thrown away, and then have the means to continue growing on their farms, producing more affordable whole foods.

Another way to diminish the price gap between wholesome and processed foods is supporting the farmers who want to grow healthy fruits and vegetables for society. When we subsidize these jobs to big business corporations, the local farmers get pushed out, unable to make ends meet, and therefore unable to grow and sell their produce. This results in the inexpensive production of processed foods while the more limited, healthy foods sell at much higher prices. It’s time to give the power back to the farmers and cut out the big businessmen. Encouraging farming in our communities would lead to an increase in healthy foods in the community and a decrease in prices at which they’re sold. A great way to accomplish this is to support local farmer’s markets and buying locally at the store. Farm to School programs also allow the local growers to sell their product in the community and introduce children at a young age to the importance of healthy foods and where their comes from.

Though often referred to as the land of abundance, America is in no way immune to the threats of food insecurity. With 2.2 million farms, America should have no problem feeding itself. The problem arises when big government gets involved and restricts what the farmers can and cannot do with their produce. The focus should not be on what we can produce cheap and quickly, but what we can sustainably grow that will truly benefit the health of the country. It should be about making healthy foods available and convenient everywhere, at prices people can afford. Only when wellness becomes a priority over profit can our country move forward together to a healthier future.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it to help others make healthy, informed choices! As always, if you have a question or topic you’d like to read more about in future posts, please don’t hesitate to drop a comment or shoot me a message to let me know what’s on your mind!

Interested in learning more about food insecurity, obesity, and fixing our food system? Checkout some of the readings below!

  • Black, Maureen, PhD. “Household Food Insecurities: Threats to Children’s Well-Being.” American Psychological Association. N.p., June 2012. Web.
  • “Eating Healthy vs. Unhealthy Diet Costs about $1.50 More per Day. “Harvard T.H. Chan. N.p., 5 Dec. 2013. Web.
  • “Fixing Our Broken Food System: The Plate of the Union Initiative.” Union of Concerned Scientists. N.p., Dec. 2015. Web.
  • Griffin TM, and Guilak F. Biorheology. “Medscape Log In.” Medscape Log In. N.p., 2008. Web.
  • Hills Ap, Henning EM, McDonald M, and Bar-Or O. “Result Filters. “National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2001. Web.
  • “Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics.” Feeding America., 2016. Web.
  • “Hunger in America: 2015 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts by World Hunger Education Service.” Hunger in America: 2015 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts by World Hunger Education Service., Sept. 2015. Web.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s