Why Low Income and Obesity Are Linked Together
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Why Low Income and Obesity Are Linked Together

Is there a link between income and obesity rates. Studies say there is. Why would low income households have a higher obesity rate.

Numerous studies show that low-income and obesity are linked together. What causes higher obesity rates in low-income households?

Some of the studies answer this with level of education and intelligence, stating the higher level of education, the less likely to be obese. I know people who I would consider with a high IQ and college educated as not only being overweight or obese, but also having type II diabetes as a result.

A 2006 study by the Colorado Health Foundation titled the “Income, Education and Obesity” found that 25% of Colorado children living in low-income households with an average income of $25,000 or less were obese compared to 8% of the children in households with an income of $75,000 or more who were obese.

In Colorado, 25% of low-income adults were obese compared with 16.7% of adults with an income over $75,000 who were obese. Among high school dropouts, the obesity rate is 25% and for college graduates, 14%. This is from a state that has the lowest obesity rate in the US with 18.9% of adults classified as obese. In 2009, 31 states reported obesity rates over 25%. In 1991, not one state reported more than a 20% obesity rate.

According to the US Agriculture Department, between 1985 and 2003, the cost of fruits and vegetables rose by 120%. While the cost of soft drinks, sweets, sugars and sweets rose by less than 50%.

An Australian study had an interesting answer to this question:  “eating binges”. When people are living paycheck to paycheck and aren’t even sure where their next paycheck is coming from, they can go on an eating binge when they get a paycheck. They don’t know where the next meal might be so they eat like crazy when they have the chance. This could be a built-in survival mechanism in humans.

Cheap Bad Food

The more popular answer is, cheap fast food causes obesity. I don’t think this has anything to do with education level; educated smart people eat fast food. Fast food restaurants are advertising their cheaper meals. Burger King has its value menu, with a $1 double cheeseburger. Jack In The Box has its Big Cheeseburger for a buck. Taco Bell has agreements with sports teams. During summer, if your baseball team had 7 or more runs, you get four tacos for $1 if you buy a drink. Taco Bell also has a deal if your football team gets two or more touchdowns; you get two free tacos if you buy a drink. These deals are only good the day after the game between 4 and 6 PM. Surprise, surprise, right during the dinner hour. Hit a couple of nearby Taco Bells and you have dinner.

Four Taco Bell hard shell tacos have 680 calories, 20 grams of fat, 14 grams of saturated fat, 1.5 grams of trans fat, 120 mg of cholesterol and 1,320 mg of sodium. That is a lot of fat.

Low-Income or All Incomes

Many times in low-income neighborhoods there will be more of the mini-mart store with a lot of junk foods instead of a full grocery store. Low-income neighborhoods aren’t thought of as safe enough for the kids to play outside after school and dinner or for adults to go for walks.

Many low-income families have just one parent, usually the mother who might be working two jobs. There just isn’t time to make meals, so fast food or the processed microwave dinners are the only answer. At the grocery store, I see people with food stamp cards buying t-bone steaks. That’s good for one meal and no leftovers. Are they eating fast food and processed meals the rest of the month until the next food stamp card arrives?

I don’t have the answer. I know plenty of middle and high-income people who are overweight to obese. I see middle to high-income neighbors who are obese coming home with fast food bags in their hands, morning and night.

Cooking Your Own Meals

People I know who are never overweight or obese are frugal people. It’s not because their extreme frugality keeps them from eating at fast food places. They know how to save money and they do all their own cooking. When you do your own cooking, you can buy more foods in bulk cheaply, control your sodium, calorie and fat content and most importantly, you always have leftovers. I know low-income people who look at you like you’re insane when you mention leftovers for tomorrow night’s dinner. They wouldn’t have leftovers for dinner if they were starving.

Too Much Salt and Sodium

Sodium is needed by our bodies to keep us healthy, but too much sodium is unhealthy. We shouldn’t have more than 2,500 mg of sodium per day. Recent studies at the University of Helsinki found that too much sodium makes the body thirsty for sweet drinks to counteract the over consumption of salt. And fast food and processed food is loaded with sodium.


There are a lot of possible answers. The statistics do show that obesity in low-income households is higher than high-income households. Could it be that there are more low-income households or that the number of low-income households is rising just as fast as the obesity rate? Do low-income households just buy more higher-calorie, low-nutrition foods? There is a misconception that healthy food is just too expensive. There are many ads at the large grocery chains for healthy food every week. A pot of stew or chili can last several nights with all kinds of vegetables, beans and just one pound of meat. Yet the obesity rate continues to rise at alarming rates. The argument is always, how can low-income people be overweight since that usually means eating too much. But if they are low-income, how can they afford so much food in order to be overweight?  If the statistics are correct, and being low-income does cause more obesity, it has to be the type of food low-income families are eating. Fast food is not a staple.

© 2009 Sam Montana

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Comments (22)

I have a theory: unemployment that leads to or goes hand in hand with poverty leaves people home, stuck in the house. They don't get the physical activity that working people do.

Ranked #1 in Obesity

Being unemployed is very discouraging. Being bored is at the same time is even worse and then there is the what the hell attitude which leads to junk eating and then possible obesity. The obesity rates are far higher than the unemployment rate though. What is worse are people working at desks in offices. I know many people in that position, and at lunchtime they go to the fast food places and bring back the junk food. I have seen people really gain weight in that position strictly from what they are eating at lunch. The real difference in studies between low income and higher income is the childhood obesity (in the Colorado study).

Sam, Great article and you are right on here. I work hard at eating healthy with my diabetes and it can get expensive. It also takes extra effort and time. So if you are low on money and time you more than likely will be eating very unhealthy foods.

I don't think that low income people choose high fat high calorie food out of sheer lack of money. My income is not the greatest(yet) and I rarely go to McDonalds or Taco Bell. I don't care if my little monsters are howling for it. If I am going to be out and about with the kids then I pack snacks and drinks for us to limit hungar. I think the majority of obese people get that way from lack of education and no will power. When I worked I used to ride the train. Across from it was a McDonalds and a Burger King. I would go and get coffee(sometimes the hashbrowns) at the McDonalds and I would see the same guy every morning. He was obese and yet he was there every morning eating two breakfast meals. No one who is broke spends everyday buying fast food. I choose the more expensive healthy food(you should see my grocery bill). Does it hurt my wallet? Yes, but since I want healthy kids...I buy better food. Great article and I agree with a lot of what you said. Nice job

exceptional article

Ranked #1 in Obesity

I still don’t get the low income to obesity link. The databases full of information do show this, especially with children. I think it has to do with habits and ease. Cooking at home and avoiding the fast food places becomes a habit. And cooking at home does take more time but it is worth it. The worst thing about this, is today’s kids are now getting into the habit of running to the fast food restaurant all the time or heating unhealthy processed microwave meals at home. Their habits will stay with them forever unless they make big changes. Maybe the most important class in school should be cooking class.

poverty is my expertise, I can tell you it has to do with food choices, and yes poor choices but it also has to do with economic factors, good food is expensive fatty crap food is cheap, I lived in the ghetto all my life, just a few days ago I called one of my sons friends, (30 years old) she was having supper at 9pm at night I asked what she was having she answered a plate of french fries, I asked why and she said, no money, no food I only have potatoes in the house,they are cheep

absolutely Clairise that is exactly what happens, also diets are completely out reachable, if you can put food on the table you cannot afford weight watchers of Jenny craig, you don't have the money to stock the right kind of foods in your pantry either.

Ranked #1 in Obesity

There is always the debate about low-protein and high carbohydrate diets. I look at it more like good carbs and bad carbs. White and refined carbs are bad. Whole-wheat carbs are good or at least better. The low-income people I do know make a new meal every night for dinner. I am guessing the money is child support or unemployment in some cases, when that money runs out and the new meals every night are done until the next check, the fast foods come into play. Some meals are great for lasting several dinners, and some meals aren’t. The economic problems of the US are mounting. Unemployment continues to rise every week and month. Unemployment benefits are running out for a lot of people. Our government keeps fiddling around while Rome burns.

yes sam it is a situation of both coming into play, lack of money and improper choices but they cannot be teased from each other, professionals have been trying for decades to do just that, very few success, the lower the income and education the lower the ability to make good choices, and lower the income the lower the ability to pay good foods, yes there dietitians that will suggest a proper diet but the diet does not appeal to the poor, and even if they can substitute french fries for a small boiled potato they often don't they there are the unhealthy snacks, candy bars instead of carrot sticks, etc it is a really battle for the poor, the obese and the professionals

Ranked #1 in Obesity

Carol, I think cooking is fast becoming a lost art also. And that doesnt help the situation. In this article I did quote real studies, but that doesnt mean I believe in all these studies. In reality, the low income I know personally are not overweight or obese. But I will say the last time I was at a pool, I was surprised at so many really overweight teens.

obesity in teens are reaching an uncontrolled level, obesity in adults is already an epidemic, there are 23 millions americans with type 2 diabetes resulting from obesity, and now kids and teens are developing type 2 diabetes as well


I liked this article until you started making assumptions and generalizations. "Many times in low-income neighborhoods there will be more of the mini-mart store with a lot of junk foods instead of a full grocery store. Low-income neighborhoods aren’t thought of as safe enough for the kids to play outside after school and dinner or for adults to go for walks." Because they don't cars to go the store, or friends with cars to take them to Wal-mart? Are you joking?

"At the grocery store, I see people with food stamp cards buying t-bone steaks."- So how many times have you seen this? Is this a common thing? Generalizations are bad news, man.

On the other hand, I did appreciate that you cited your sources.

Ranked #1 in Obesity

Stephanie, I don’t know what you mean about cars to Wal-Mart, I don’t see that anywhere in the article. And yes, I have seen people with food stamps buy T-bone steaks and junk foods, and it is common at the grocery stores.

"Many times in low-income neighborhoods there will be more of the mini-mart store with a lot of junk foods instead of a full grocery store." I might be reading this wrong, but it seems like the point you are trying to make here is that these "mini-marts" are the only place that low income can families shop? I'm not disagreeing that they only sell junk food, in fact these stores are more expensive than a grocery store. I don't know how many take food stamps? However in my hometown, Louisville, they have began a chain of health food stores which are in low income neighborhoods. Not all low income families live in bad neighborhoods, either. I'm not disagreeing with the fact that some people take advantage and aren't responsible with their food stamps. I'm just saying you don't have those statistics to make that claim, rendering your statement invalid.

Ranked #1 in Obesity

Stephanie, buying steaks isn’t terrible and will not lead to obesity. It is healthier to buy steak than a case of soda pop, but usually it’s both. The city I live in, there was a big Kroger store in a low-income area, but it burned down because of arson. The company doesn’t want to build another. Some of the smaller health food type stores have talked about opening in the lower income areas, but it never happens for one reason or another. I have seen first hand the types of food and pop people buy with food stamps. The abuse of food stamps is another topic all together, and I can get statistics for the abuse of food stamps from the state of Colorado, considering they just did a study. But that abuse was buying lotto tickets and things other than healthy food, so that leaves little money for buying healthy food for meals. Back to obesity and low income, there are numerous reasons in the article, not just the availability of healthy food choices.

Ranked #1 in Obesity

Stephanie, there is a correlation between a higher body mass index and whether or not there are large grocery stores in a neighborhood. Here is a source for this information. Report of the DGAC on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 page D1-6. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/DGAC/Report/D-1-EnergyBalance.pdf

Great article, Sam. I think you hit the nail on the head with two particular points: the binge-eating/scarcity link and the lack of home-cooked meals. Nice answer to the over-simplified socioeconomic explanation for obesity.

Ranked #1 in Obesity

Hi Stacy, I have seen news stories on TV lately about families eating at a fast food place. And the point was brought up that a hamburger there cost less than a bunch of carrots. I have seen recent stories about this as well, that healthy food has increased in price while fast food has decreased considerably. Maybe the large corporate farms taking over everything, that is dictating prices. But it doesn't sound good for the health of the country. I still believe a family can cook a meal and learn to buy enough at good prices and eat left-overs. So many people will not eat left-overs. Here is another article I wrote that really simplifies the answer to the obesity problem you might be interested in reading. http://factoidz.com/a-1970-answer-to-the-rising-obesity-rate/

Sam, the numbers you cited on healthy vs. unhealthy food price increases are terrible. But good values can be found. I bought a pound of organic carrots at a local store for less than $2. And a pound of carrots can really go far. A lot of the problem is getting into bad habits. I find that when I eat badly for a few days, I crave bad food. Same goes for when I eat well. I don't get the leftovers thing - I hate throwing away perfectly good food! Will check out your other article. Thanks for the consistently good nutrition/health information.


I'm not so sure the relationship between weight and income is quite as you say it is. Just because low income and obesity are correlated, it doesn't mean that poverty leads to obesity. Perhaps there is a third factor, just as poor impulse control or laziness, that causes both.

Ranked #1 in Obesity

I can see what you are saying Peej. But a recent report showed that a dollar meal at McDonalds costs less than just one pound of carrots. I think it is time the US government stop subsidizing the corn industry and maybe subsidize the healthier vegetable food industry. Corn is in every single item you will buy in a fast food or processed food meal including the high fructose corn syrup. And I think that is a problem. Laziness or just being so mentally attuned to buying a pre-packaged processed food meal is also part of the problem. Another problem which amazes me is how some people I actually know on food stamps refuse to eat leftovers. Refuse to make a big pot chili or burrito mix and eat it for a second or even a third dinner.