Hunger at the Root of Obesity

Many articles and studies attempt to explain the rapid increase in obesity in this country. Of the many reasons given for the rise in obesity rates, hunger is rarely if ever mentioned. Yet Randy Oostra, president and CEO of ProMedica, one of the Midwest’s largest medical insurers, claimed just that in a presentation to a community forum in Toledo, Ohio. Oostra said, “Hunger is a health issue, and hunger is the root of the obesity epidemic in the U.S.”

Midwestern healthcare company CEOs usually do not have a flair for the dramatic, so what prompted this claim? It seems paradoxical to be hungry, yet develop or have obesity. Studies have examined this paradox, and Oostra and other speakers from ProMedica noted that neighborhoods with the greatest economic challenges often have the least access to high-quality nutrition. The poor have less money to spend on food, and many lack transportation to reach the stores carrying fresh produce and lean sources of protein. Those on a limited budget often select less-nutritious food because junk food is cheaper. Diets with many empty calories add to one’s odds of developing obesity.

Hunger in America is obviously more problematic that “just” the concept of it being a major factor in causing obesity. The cost to the U.S. for hunger is very high considering it results in more uninsured emergency room visits and more public health problems. Many studies link poor nutrition to a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure, anemia, diabetes, asthma, anxiety, depression, and poor school performance. Hunger also affects every citizen whether food insecure or wealthy. In a 2010 update to the original report, “The Economic Cost of Domestic Hunger,” the authors state that the far-reaching consequences of hunger in our nation cost every citizen $542 a year. They estimated that at the household level the hunger bill was at least $1,410, so the hunger problem affects everyone’s finances.

America’s hunger bill was $167.5 billion in 2010. An estimated 48.8 million Americans, or 16.1% of the population, lived in food insecure households that year, meaning they were hungry or faced food insecurity at some point during the year. Nearly half of the households seeking emergency food assistance reported having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food, and nearly 40% said they had to choose between paying for rent or a mortgage and food.

Click here to read more in the Toledo Blade, click here to access the Food Resource and Action Center’s resources on the link between hunger and obesity, click here for a publication on recent scientific insights into the link between hunger and obesity, click here for a report on the cost of hunger in America, and click here for perspective on the hunger-obesity link from Marion Nestle.

Hunger Is the Best Cook, image by Myra Albert Wiggins / Wikimedia

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