Research suggests poverty has links to obesity, particularly in poorer states of high income countries such as the United States. Factors may include people being less able to afford nutritious foods and having less time to engage in exercise.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines obesity as an excessive accumulation of fat that causes a health risk. The cause of obesity is when people consume more calories than they use, which leads to weight gain.

The health consequences of having overweight and obesity can include:

  • cardiovascular diseases
  • musculoskeletal conditions
  • diabetes
  • some types of cancer

Economic factors, geographic area poverty, and area income inequality are all factors that influence health outcomes, including obesity.

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Poverty has associations with poor nutritional value, as it is harder for people experiencing poverty to regularly afford basic nutritional food items, such as proteins and raw fruits and vegetables.

An unbalanced diet restricts opportunities for physical development and increases the risk of obesity.

In developed countries, characteristics of some regional diets may increase the risk of obesity. For example, the typical Western diet involves a high glycemic load and a high intake of animal proteins. This means these foods increase blood glucose levels by a high amount.

This increases the activation of a component called mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1), which controls metabolism and cell growth, increasing the risk of obesity.

However, the WHO highlights that obesity prevalence is also rising in mid and low income countries.

Anything that increases the risk of developing a disease classifies as a risk factor.

Although the link is indirect, poverty increases the risk of developing obesity, as it limits how much people are able to spend on food, which affects nutrient intake.

Research suggests that there are higher rates of obesity in under-resourced states in the United States.

States with more than 35% of people living in poverty had a 145% increase in the number of people with obesity compared with richer states.

Additionally, obesity in Europe has tripled in the past 20 years. There are currently around 300,000 people who die from obesity or diseases relating to excess body fat in the European Union annually.

The poverty-obesity paradox is a term that researchers used to describe the positive association between poverty and obesity.

Researchers refer to this as a paradox, or contradiction. This is because some people may assume that those less able to afford food due to poverty, which some also call low food security, would have a lower calorific intake and therefore not experience weight gain.

Researchers have put forward several theories to explain this paradox, including:

  • Low cost and highly processed foods: Obesity may be more common in low income households because of the lower cost and higher availability of processed foods that have high calorific content but low nutritional value.
  • Limited time and resources: Another theory suggests that people with low food security have limited time, knowledge, and resources to engage in healthy eating and exercise.
  • Low food security and weight gain: Another theory suggests that weight gain may be a strategic survival response in humans in response to perceived low food security. Studies in animals have shown that an unpredictable food supply can influence body weight and fat storage, with the effect observable more in animals with a lower “social status.”

Statistically, people from low income households are more likely to have obesity.

Anyone can experience obesity, but in the United States, it has strong associations with low individual income, poverty, and a lack of food security.

People from low income households in richer countries are more likely to have obesity, but obesity rates are also rising in developing countries.

Obesity develops when people consume more calories than they use, which causes an excessive amount of fat to accumulate, potentially leading to health issues. There are different reasons behind excessive weight gain, but in high income countries, this is often due to eating foods with high calorific content but low nutritional value.

In developed countries, obesity rates are often higher in low income communities due to less access to foods with nutritional value, such as fruits and vegetables.

Obesity rates are rising globally, which is leading to an increase in health problems. At a societal level, it is important to make more nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity more accessible and affordable for all.