The Rapidian

The Paradox of Hunger and Obesity

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Food insecurity and obesity make for strange bedfellows
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The United States has the dubious distinction of having the greatest percentage of people that are obese. Almost 34% of the population is considered to be suffering from obesity. It's one thing it leads the world in that isn't very flattering.

Interestingly, the number of people living with food insecurity in the US is 16.4%. It isn't a big surprise that so many people are obese while almost half as many are not certain that they will have enough to eat. We live in a world of 'haves' and 'have nots' and the US is no exception.
Paradoxically, there is an overlap in those who are overweight and those who live with food insecurity.
Why the paradox of obesity and food insecurity? It's part human physiology, part human nature and partly the deficiencies in the food delivery system to the hungry.
Physiologically the human body stores calories for later use. The more food insecure a person is, the more they eat when there is an abundance of food and the more calories their body stores for when there is a shortage. Unfortunately those calories are stored as fat and in unhealthy places, like around the waist.
The human nature part is the tendency to be sedentary. This is especially true for people experiencing depression which often accompanies a life of poverty. Combine that with the lack of employment and there is little opportunity to use excess calories.
The deficiencies in the food delivery system are due in a large part to the lack of economies of scale that food pantries have compared to large grocery chains. It is expensive to acquire, store and distribute healthier foods, such as fresh produce. The relatively small size of pantries makes it almost cost prohibitive to offer produce in large quantities except when they are in season locally.

In 2004
The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) produced research on the history of poverty, hunger and obesity in the US. The report entitled "Proceedings of the Roundtable on Understanding the Paradox of Hunger and Obesity" provides an in-depth look at the food insecurity and its root causes. While the specific data is now dated, the concepts still ring true. Moreover, recent data confirm that there still are a disproportionate number of African Americans and Hispanics that struggle with both obesity and food insecurity.
The report is worth the read, but if you don't have the time here is the conclusion:
"Prevention of obesity is unlikely to succeed if we attempt to deal only with individuals without consideration of the environment in which they live. We must accept that the problem cannot be solved simply by an appeal to individual responsibility. We must work to change the economic and social environment to one that facilitates healthy life styles. Unfortunately, for the past twenty years or so we have been moving in the opposite direction toward an environment which does not promote healthy eating and physical activity choices. After all, we shall all pay the future social and economic costs of a sickly society."
It is a rather sobering conclusion for our nation.

If the environment of poverty were not enough to put people at risk of becoming obese, we can also blame genetics. Observations from famines show that their effect on women who suffer through them while pregnant can have a permanent effect on the physiology of her children. This article: from The Economist cites that children of Dutch women who were pregnant during the "Hunger Winter" of 1944 were prone to higher rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease than children born a year or two earlier.

That mothers can pass on to their offspring a physiology of hunger insecurity isn't news. But the gist of the article from The Economist is that two recent studies suggest that a male who experiences malnutrition during conception can pass on his genes as well. If further research proves to be conclusive, the challenge of combating hunger and obesity becomes all the more daunting.
During the years of the Great Recession that we have been experiencing, hunger and poverty rates have risen to record levels. The children born into poverty during this time will be affected even before they reach school through higher incidences of illnesses. The longer term effects will not be noticeable for a generation.
As one of the ‘have’ countries, the United States could potentially eliminate food insecurity within its borders. Less likely is that obesity will be eliminated domestically. Faced with the obstacles of human physiology, human nature and deficiencies in the food delivery system, the elimination of the paradox of hunger and obesity is even less likely.

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