Food Research & Action Center: Why Low-Income and Food Insecure People are Vulnerable to Overweight and Obesity

Due to the additional risk factors associated with poverty, food insecure and low-income people are especially vulnerable to obesity. More specifically, obesity among food insecure people – as well as among low-income people – occurs in part because they are subject to the same influences as other Americans (e.g., more sedentary lifestyles, increased portion sizes), but also because they face unique challenges in adopting healthful behaviors as described below.

Limited resources and lack of access to healthy, affordable foods:

  • Low-income neighborhoods frequently lack full-service grocery stores and farmers’ markets where residents can buy a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Instead, residents – especially those without reliable transportation – may be limited to shopping at small neighborhood convenience and corner stores, where fresh produce and low-fat items are limited, if available at all.  One of the most comprehensive reviews of U.S. studies examining neighborhood disparities in food access found that neighborhood residents with better access to supermarkets and limited access to convenience stores tend to have healthier diets and reduced risk for obesity.
  • When available, healthy food is often more expensive, whereas refined grains, added sugars, and fats are generally inexpensive and readily available in low-income communities. Households with limited resources to buy enough food often try to stretch their food budgets by purchasing inexpensive, energy-dense foods that are filling – to maximize their calories per dollar in order to stave off hunger. While less expensive, energy-dense foods typically have lower nutritional quality and, because of overconsumption of calories, have been linked to obesity.
  • When available, healthy food – especially fresh produce – is often of poorer quality in lower income neighborhoods, which diminishes the appeal of these items to buyers.
  • Low-income communities have greater availability of fast food restaurants, especially near schools. These restaurants serve many energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods at relatively low prices.  Fast food consumption is associated with a diet high in calories and low in nutrients, and frequent consumption may lead to weight gain.

Cycles of food deprivation and overeating:

  • Those who are eating less or skipping meals to stretch food budgets may overeat when food does become available, resulting in chronic ups and downs in food intake that can contribute to weight gain. Cycles of food restriction or deprivation also can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with food and metabolic changes that promote fat storage – all the worse when in combination with overeating.  Unfortunately, overconsumption is even easier given the availability of cheap, energy-dense foods in low-income communities.
  • The “feast or famine” situation is especially a problem for low-income parents, particularly mothers, who often restrict their food intake and sacrifice their own nutrition in order to protect their children from hunger. Such a coping mechanism puts them at risk for obesity – and research shows that parental obesity, especially maternal obesity, is in turn a strong predictor of childhood obesity.

Limited access to health care:

  • Many low-income people lack access to basic health care, or if health care is available, it is lower quality. This results in lack of diagnosis and treatment of emerging chronic health problems like obesity.


To read the complete Food Research & Action Center article, including research citations, please click here.