Engagement, Mother and Child

Rising Disparities, Rising Obesity

CBPP Graphic - Income Gains and InequalityA growing body of evidence lends ever more credibility to the idea that rising disparities may have a great deal to do with the seemingly inexorable rise of obesity. The latest is experimental data, published in Appetite, showing that people eat more when confronted with feeling poor or poorer than people around them. The authors conclude:

The findings provide causal evidence for the poverty-intake and inequality-intake links. Further, we identify social anxiety and a strong need to belong as important social psychological factors linking inequality to increased calorie intake.

The growth of economic disparities since 1980 is striking, especially when you consider it against the almost perfectly coincidental growth U.S. Adult Obesity Ratein obesity prevalence, also ignited in the 1980s.

For perspective on the evidence base for these observations, a 2012 review by Kathryn Kaiser and colleagues from the Nutrition and Obesity Research Center at UAB is well worth reading. In addition to a thorough review of observational and experimental data, they propose a model for understanding this phenomenon. Social status appears to have profound effects on both humans and animals.

Kaiser et al summarize “clear experimental and observational evidence for causative associations between SES and obesity as well as between caloric restriction and longevity.” They propose that low social status, disparities, and other environment factors work together as threats to “energetic security.” Perhaps a more familiar label for this concept is food security. Reduced energetic security can have disparate effects on health. Reduced health comes from prompting both animals and humans to seek more food and store it as fat. But paradoxically, when a severely restricted food supply makes storing excess body fat impossible, slower aging and greater longevity can result.

The evidence base is a moving target. The role of social disparities in obesity is becoming hard to ignore. Disparities appear to be triggering potent biological responses that are tied to survival.

Beyond the challenge of unravelling this puzzle, the challenge of reversing the problem we have created will be even greater.

Click here to read the study in Appetite, here to read the paper by Kaiser et al, and here to read more from NPR.

Engagement, Mother and Child, 1883 painting by Vladimir Yegorovich Makovsky / WikiArt

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January 27, 2016

One Response to “Rising Disparities, Rising Obesity”

  1. January 28, 2016 at 4:30 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Interesting, but then consider the reverse effect of disparities in China, India, Vietnam, etc. We have to dig deeper.