Obesity has historically been associated with wealth and indulgence, and poverty with starvation. However, now in the 21th Century people who live in poverty are more likely to be obese, especially in the developed world.
Obesity is a global crisis with 39% of adults being overweight or obese in 2016. Poverty plays a role in this as evidence has shown that poorer people are more likely to be food insecure and that households that are food insecure have the highest BMI and obesity prevalence. Food security is when a person always has availability and adequate access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. The two major ways that poverty lead to food insecurity are lack of availability and lack of access to healthy food.
Food deserts – lack of availability
A ‘food desert’ describes an area that lacks access to fresh food. These food deserts are associated with lower quality diets, higher obesity rates and are usually in deprived areas. A contributing factor to these food deserts is that there are fewer supermarkets in deprived areas. This may be due to some characteristics of deprived areas deterring brands from building there.
Examples of deterring characteristics:
– Increased levels of violence
– Inadequate transport infrastructure
– Zoning impediments
Poorer people are less likely to have a large supermarket in their local area and are less likely to be able to travel to one as owning a car or using public transport is expensive. This means that poorer people are reliant on smaller, more expensive shops. The reason that shopping at smaller shops costs more money is because they tend not to carry own-brand foods, which are cheaper, and they have fewer deals. This is an example of a poverty premium – where poorer consumers have to pay more for products than richer consumers.
Expense of healthy food – lack of access
Evidence has shown that healthier food is more expensive, and it has been getting more expensive over time. A study in 2012 demonstrated this – it found that per 1,000 calories unhealthy food cost just £2.50, but healthy food cost £7.50. This seems shocking, so for a practical example, let’s consider snacks.
An example of a healthy snack is an apple – a serving being 1 apple.
An example of an unhealthy snack is a bourbon biscuit – a serving being 2 biscuits.
As clearly shown, bourbons, even though they are the unhealthier option, are much cheaper and provide a higher number of calories. This is often the case with food, so people on a tighter budget are forced to buy more unhealthy food in order to get the number of calories they need in a day.
Solutions sometimes don’t help
Some solutions to help people that are food insecure also provide unhealthy options. For example, The Trussell Trust, which is the main food bank in the UK, include on their website a list of what is usually found in a food parcel.
– Tinned tomatoes/ pasta sauce
– Tinned meat
– Tinned vegetables
– Tinned fruit
– Lentils, beans and pulses
– UHT milk
– Fruit juice
A lot of the foods provided are processed carbohydrates or long-life food. The food tends not to be fresh as they want the food to last as long as possible, but this means that the food tends to be less healthy and more likely to feed into the problem of obesity.
Problems caused by obesity
Obesity leads to a variety of problems and reduces life expectancy by an average of 3-10 years. It is estimated that obesity contributes to at least 1 out of 13 deaths in Europe. Here are some examples of the problems obesity can lead to:
Day to day problems – breathlessness, snoring, excessive sweating, joint and back pain
Psychological – low confidence and self-esteem, feeling isolated, depression, bullying
Serious health issues – type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, asthma, reduced fertility, high cholesterol
Poverty is not the only cause for obesity. People make their own choices about exercise and food they consume, and genetics can play a role in a person’s size. However, since the effects of obesity can be so life-changing and damaging, people should not be in the position where they are less able to choose healthy food and therefore are more likely to become obese.
Right to food and food justice
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a right to food. The Food and Agriculture Organization formulated guidelines in 2004 to implement this right to food and the goals include removing food insecurity and malnutrition. Malnutrition includes both over and undernutrition. As discussed earlier, currently not every person in the world is living with the types of food they have a right to. This has led to a movement called food justice, which fights for everyone to have achieved right to food. Food justice has 5 aspects to it: trauma/inequity, land, labour, exchange and democratic process. The one that is involved in this issue is inequity – the fight to end injustices, in this case the inequality between the rich and poor’s access to healthy food.
Currently if a person is living in poverty, they are also more likely to be obese and food insecure. This is due to lack of availability and access, especially due to location and higher cost of healthy food. Sometimes even some solutions to food insecurity do not provide adequate healthy food. As obesity can lead to such severe complications, more focus needs to be put on making healthy food available to people from all socio-economic backgrounds, especially considering that right to food is a fundamental human right.