Considering Why Lower Income & Food Insecurity Equals Higher Weight

Among the findings from his landmark analysis of the Midtown Manhattan Study on mental health in 1964, Dr. Albert “Mickey” Stunkard was the first to identify that lower income appears to correlate to a higher rate of obesity. Essentially, poor people are fatter which seems to present a paradox that food insecurity leads to weight gain.

There are many, many theories why this was true then and remains true today. I have some theories of my own. I’ll start by saying it’s interesting to note that the correlation pre-dates the upward shift in weight of the average American as the CDC began to notice in the 70s. We might look at how today’s obesogenic environment has exacerbated social dynamics that existed before the onslaught of junk food.

I draw my theories from two points of reference: My own experiences dealing with financial challenges following the crash of 2008 and how that impacted my work and my observations as a tutor working in low-income housing facilities. I start from a place of considering Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The Hierarchy proposes that certain needs must be met before we can consider higher-level interests. In this case, consider that when money is in short supply and you live week to week, maybe even day to day, managing the little money you have to meet your basic living expenses tends to dominate your life. Being concerned about the nutritional quality of food becomes a luxury. Buying what food you can afford is the focus.

Imagine the effort it takes to plan for a health-supporting diet. You consider the nutritional content of foods, you plan for storage needs for perishable foods, you consider how to cook and prepare fresh foods. Choosing between fresh vegetables and frozen pizza is about your interest in making certain choices for yourself. For a person whose life is dominated by managing limited financial resources, the focus is on what food can be bought today and what can last through a few days and the end of the week. When food insecurity is a constant worry, planning for the nutritional content is not going to be the primary concern.

The residents of the housing facilities where I tutor have very limited kitchens. Some residents might not have means to cook or store fresh food their tiny one-room apartments. The monthly SNAP benefits for an individual in Illinois is $200 a month. When you’re faced with a budget like that, you’ll look for the biggest box or bag of something instead of spending $3 on a 1 pound bag of grapes or a cantaloupe.

I remember being particularly offended last year when Newt Gingrich spoke about how children from low-income families had no model for hard work and working for a paycheck. What planet does this man live on? Low-income people work minimum wage jobs that are often labor-intensive and back-breaking, on their feet all day. Folks with families may have more than one job. Planning to cook nutritious meals is difficult enough when you don’t have to try to manage childcare and demanding work schedules with few resources that could make it all easier.

I think also that food plays a very different role in the lives of lower income people. It really is a luxury to pursue hobbies and personal interests and to do work that gives you a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. You fill your free time with what you want to do. I can tell that for many of the people I work with, food is the focus of their social activity and their most pleasurable pastime. Further, eating something “big” makes them feel celebratory and rewarded. Eating out for them is limited pretty much to fast food restaurants where buying the biggest burger is a highly-valued indulgence.

I can only speculate what low-income people ate in the 1960s to display higher rates of obesity than their more affluent counterparts. Cheap starches? Potatoes, rice, beans, pasta? Homemade sandwiches? Most people did cook back then; there was little choice. The “TV dinner” became popular only in the mid-1950s and the snack aisle at the grocery store was pretty much Lays Potato Chips and Fritos, the end. When I was growing up, I knew of ONE McDonald’s in my hometown and I remember when it didn’t have a drive-thru yet. But for poor people, buying and preparing food is reduced to the basics of just getting through the week and they’ve always done it however they can.

Today we judge people on what we perceive their life choices to be. Those who would harbor bias would like to assume that everyone has an equal shot at maintaining an average bodyweight and earning a stable living. Anything less is believed to be the justifiable result of poor judgment and character flaws. Look at the trend of middle class people viciously calling for drug testing of the “unworthy” poor to receive public assistance and the use of remotely causal “evidence” calling for crackdowns on the presumption that welfare benefits are spent at liquor stores and strip clubs.

To be fat is to be presumed weak and undisciplined. To be poor and fat is to be reduced to the lowest levels of our society’s perception of the most incapable, irresponsible, and ignorant.


  1. There isn’t much lower status then being poor and fat. I would say poor and severely obese people are at the absolute bottom of the heap.

    As you know I have written for me, obesity and poverty have served as two twins interrelated with one another. I believe poverty made me so fat to begin with. Starvation times with food on and off, poor medical care–heart damaged from undiagnosed hypothyroidism, lack of money for activities–I have become the queen of finding “free” things to do, but when there was no car, it was like being in a prison, lack of social interaction-your isolation from being poor and fat also limits energetic opportunities.

    I always said if I won the Lotto tomorrow. I’d lose 100lbs without even thinking about it. There’d be no effort involved. I have noticed when I have the most money and more variety of food I lose more weight. That is not supposed to be how the formula works but it does for me. My weight is on a downward trajectory, well its down 200lbs from the ultimate peak but that has been over 15 years. Money would speed things up. There would be more to do. One could live life. I am glad you mention that food is one of the primary pleasures for the very poor.

    1. Absolutely, the more money we have, the more we get to spend discretionarily on ourselves. When I was making a lot of money as a commodities broker, I had plastic surgery on my upper arms and planned to get a tummy tuck. I went to a trainer three times a week and worked with a bodybuilding consultant. The 2008 crash put an end to that.

      Fortunately, I did learn lessons I will use all my life. I bought equipment I still use at home. I became a trainer myself. I’m fortunate to live where I have the choice of shopping at locally-owned Mexican fruit and vegetable markets for half the price of chain grocery stores.

      Here in Illinois we have a high-risk pool state-administered insurance plan. I had it for about two years. Total Rolls Royce coverage for anything and everything. At the time it cost me $800/mo. Now it would cost me $1000/mo. I’m hoping that with Obamacare I will be able to get affordable insurance with pre-existing conditions.

  2. Yes the more money you have, the more money you can use to spend on yourself and take care of yourself. I wish we could afford a vacation, but am having to be content with driving 30 miles north to another town I like for the day during times when I am housebound. I am glad you were able to get trainers and the plastic surgery, sorry you faced the brunt of the 2008 crash. My life is strange in that while I was raised upper middle class, poverty knocked on my door by age 21 and stayed. That is great you can use a lot of what you learned and use the equipment and do training. Wow on that insurance price! :0 How do they expect people to afford that? When husband got laid off, we got the Cobra which they said would cost 800, we couldn’t afford that. He has lived without health insurance since 2005, me I have Medicare. At least we live in an area with a good free clinic now, that wasn’t always so.

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