published Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Researchers finds links between obesity, poverty

by Emily Bregel
Audio clip

Dr. Robin Cleeland

The barriers to living and eating healthily are multiplied for people in poorer communities and households where time and money are scarce, local researchers and health advocates say.

“We’re only really beginning to understand the social determinants of obesity,” said Dr. Robin Cleeland, a professor at Dalton State College whose research focuses, in part, on the economic factors that contribute to unhealthy weights.

“We focus a lot on behavior and the choices people make, but what we’ve coming to understand is that some people have a great many more choices than others do,” she said.

A number of studies have linked obesity with low-income status in some populations, Dr. Cleeland said.

In 2008 she studied blue-collar workers at three large manufacturers in North Georgia. Even among this working population, she found what she said was a shocking level of “food insecurity,” or the inability to afford foods that provide balanced nutrition, paired with higher-than-average rates of diabetes and obesity.

More than three-quarters of the 98 employees surveyed were overweight or obese, she said, and almost 40 percent said they could not afford balanced meals.

“These were employed workers who are doing relatively well financially and still had the food security issues,” Dr. Cleeland said. “And we did this prior to the recession, so it makes me really wonder what the situation is now and to what extent the problem has worsened.”

Many health advocates believe that efforts to fight obesity not only must address individual choices but also tackle bigger issues — such as the accessibility and affordability of healthy foods.

and the creation of safe places to exercise — that will make it easier for people of all income levels to be fit.

“There are places in town where it really isn’t safe for a kid to play outside,” said John Bilderback, program manager for Step One, the anti-obesity program of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.

Some local advocates are working to create joint-use agreements that would allow local families to use school playgrounds, he said.

It also costs more to eat healthy food, experts say.

Prices for processed foods made with high-fructose corn syrup, such as soft drinks and fast food, have declined sharply since 1985, while the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has risen nearly 40 percent in two decades, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. The Minneapolis-based institute advocates for sustainable food, farm and trade systems.

“We’ve got an overweight population that does not have money to buy the right kinds of food,” said Nancy Kennedy, executive director of the North Georgia Healthcare Partnership, a nonprofit organization focused on healthy lifestyles. “They’re buying the fast foods where for $4.99 you get the double burger and curly fries and 32-ounce Coke.”

Poor neighborhoods also may have fewer grocery stores that carry fresh fruits and vegetables. Residents must shop at convenience stores and gas stations, which focus on more processed and unhealthy options, Mr. Bilderback said.

Lori Quillen, policy analyst with the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies in Chattanooga, cited a recent study of federal food stamp use in Hamilton County. She said that in the five areas with the highest use, almost 90 percent of the stores that accepted food stamps are considered “fringe food” outlets, such as gas stations and convenience stores.

“What that begins to get at is that, in some of these lower-income neighborhoods, there actually is less access to healthy food,” she said.

Mr. Bilderback said some school and neighborhood leaders are using grant money to build community gardens for residents to grow their own produce.

Federal food assistance programs also are a way to help poor people afford healthy foods, local advocates say.

This year, Tennessee’s federal Women, Infants and Children food assistance program began offering fresh produce from farmers’ markets for enrollees. The Georgia WIC program has partnered with local farmers markets for a few years.


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about Emily Bregel...

Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...

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ekmathean3 said...

I'm sorry, I think this article is idiotic. The relivence of this article is moot. We already know that the lower class is unable to purchase better, more nutrional food. We have to purchase what we can to survive, not what might have the most nutritional value. Exactly how much money did they spend to discover this? Could that money not have been used somewhere else? Like the Chattanooga Area Food Bank? Helping others even finding food to eat?

November 28, 2009 at 11:30 a.m.
harrystatel said...

Beans and cornbread. Excellent nutrition. Cheap.

Rice, flour, greens, potatoes, milk, all excellent for nutritious meals. Cheap.

Cigarettes, beer, crack, new rims for car, name-brand tennis shoes. Expensive.

The entire premise of this article is incorrect and submitted by individuals whose pandering and misinformation supports their own careers.

Ms. Bregel, ever thought of challenging some of these "experts"? How about original thought--not just parroting the party line of the day?

Obese people -- poor, rich, or otherwise make a choice. The final choice is how much they put in their mouth.

I've never seen a Big Mac mysteriously fly into anyone's mouth.

Isn't it interesting that while the TFP continually runs articles on "obesity", they continue to make money by publishing ads from fast-food restaurants, all-you-can-eat buffets, liquor stores, convenience stores, . . .

If the TFP truly believes in the "evil of obesity", why continue to accept money from these businesses?

Don't bother to answer TFP, we already know the reason.

November 28, 2009 at 12:34 p.m.
harrystatel said...

Only in America can obese, under-worked and over-pampered people in supposed poverty complain about not having good food to eat.

According to the logic of the TFP article, we should be seeing Africans in real poverty weighing 400 pounds.

November 28, 2009 at 4:17 p.m.
rolando said...

Let's see, 5 bucks for lunch/dinner at McWhatever's.

A 1/4 lb of the cheapest beef is about 50 cents at Wally's World.

A large diet house-cola is about the same.

A couple dozen frozen curly-fries is about the half that.

Cost to cook -- miniscule.

A burger bun -- 2-bits or so.

Condiments -- same thing, give or take

Total for a healthy, self-prepared burger/fry/coke combo -- $2.50 or so -- less than half of the McThing.

Effort to fix it yourself -- and this is the real reason for buying the McThing -- Priceless; they don't want to do that. [Note: In many cases, that is why money is so short...that and crack, cigs, rims, big-screen TV, blackberry, etc.]

November 28, 2009 at 4:54 p.m.
rcleeland said...

Responses to a few of your comments. . .

1-If people were truly poor, they wouldn’t be obese.

Having traveled in Africa, I can report that excess weight IS a significant problem among adults. In Malawi, for example, the diet consists largely of a traditional staple called nsima, a boiled mixture of corn flour and water. Nsima has few nutrients, but it provides calories (energy), and it fills empty stomachs very inexpensively. Many people in our area also enjoy foods that have few nutrient and lots of calories that are inexpensive. We do love our cornbread, biscuits, and fried chicken around here, but we have learned that many of the foods that our ancestors enjoyed are not healthy for us--especially in large portions. Lard is not our friend no matter how tasty it makes biscuits.

2-Poor people do not have access to healthy food because they waste their money on other things.

I’m sure that poor people do sometimes spend their money foolishly as do those of us who are not poor. However, it is also often difficult for people who have low incomes to afford and have access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and protein. Many communities are working to make healthy, affordable produce available to everyone.

Stereotypes about the poor are often inaccurate. According to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 10% of the poor (100% of FPL) are age 65 or older. Almost 20% of the poor are children. In approximately 60% of families headed by people under age 65, at least one person in the family worked full-time all year.

3-We can all control our own food intake. We are all responsible for our diets.

With the exception of children (who make up a significant proportion of the population), most of us do have the ability to make choices about the food that we eat. For people who have low incomes, options for healthy eating are limited by low income, physical access, cost, and sometimes, lack of information.

During the Great Depression, we learned that having a low income was not always the fault of the individual. During the current recession, we have been reminded that people experience “hard times” for a variety of reasons.

I imagine that many who have suffered during the recession would attest that their food options are more limited now than when the economy was better.

Dr. Cleeland

November 28, 2009 at 9:34 p.m.
harrystatel said...

Dr. Cleeland,

These people didn't get obese in the last two years. Come out of your ivory tower and take off your utopian glasses.

People always have a choice. But unlike you, I make the individual responsible for their actions.

If you want to use your worldly possessions to feed them, go ahead. But you don't get mine.

November 28, 2009 at 10:01 p.m.
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