A recent analysis from Louisiana finds that the correlation between obesity and food insecurity has doubled over the last two decades in the United States.
A team of researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center analyzed government data on food insecurity—defined as inadequate access to safe and nutritious food—and obesity among 46,000 adults between 1999 and 2016.
During that time, the rate of food insecurity rose from 8.7 percent to 18.2 percent. The increase correlated directly with rising obesity rates: the results showed that obese adults were most likely to be food insecure, followed by overweight adults, than adults with a moderate weight.
The study finds this correlation increased substantially over time. In 2000, 10.4 percent of obese Americans were food insecure. That number jumped to 22.6 percent by 2016.
The pattern holds true for White and Latinx adults—both men and women—though women and Latinx adults were disproportionately affected by the link between hunger and weight. There was one notable exception: food insecurity was the highest among Black Americans of a moderate weight.
The authors speculate that one explanation for this trend is that some of the most accessible and affordable foods tend to be the least healthy. And some scientists hypothesize that skipping meals and intermittently consuming unhealthy foods can further interfere with people’s metabolisms.
But Candice Myers, Ph.D. and lead author of the study, says diet might not be the only factor. She points out that individuals who are food insecure experience higher rates of depression and anxiety, both of which are linked to obesity. Unmanaged chronic conditions, like type 2 diabetes, and medication adherence might also play a role.
Myers believes in a multipronged solution. “This may mean not just increasing accessibility and affordability of food, but really focusing on increasing the availability of healthy and nutritious food, along with dietary education, to improve health outcomes,” she tells Food Tank.
Myers also calls for expanded access to nutrition assistance programs, as well as financial support for community-based groups and organizations that provide food aid. Her team urges physicians to screen for food insecurity and obesity concurrently in order to more quickly identify at-risk patients.
Myers notes that COVID-19 has brought an even greater sense of urgency to the issue. Researchers at Northwestern University estimate food insecurity has doubled in the U.S. due to the pandemic, and tripled in households with children, leaving nearly one-quarter of Americans hungry. Meanwhile, more than 42 percent of Americans are obese.
“Food insecurity and obesity are not mutually exclusive health issues,” Myers tells Food Tank. “Rather, these issues are linked in such a way that public health efforts to address them simultaneously may be necessary. Shared efforts among government and public health organizations that aim to increase food security, while also improving health, are needed.”
Image courtesy of Nathália Rosa, Unsplash