Over the past decade, in particular, state-funded scientific studies have been seeking to identify the root causes of the obesity epidemic in western societies. Obesity rates have been found to be concentrated in communities with the highest levels of poverty and low-income levels. In the long-run, this epidemic inflicts a big economic strain on the health care system and stunts these communities from socially or economically thriving.
What is causing the poor to be overweight?
There are a wide variety of factors affecting low-income communities that contribute to their increased susceptibility to obesity. Both low-income urban and rural areas are underserved by grocery stores, especially those grocery stores offering healthier, organic produce, for example. There are three times as many grocery stores in wealthy communities compared to poor ones. Without a vehicle or public transportation to help them carry groceries home, poorer residents of these communities often resort to shopping at mini-marts overstocked in salty, processed foods that cause hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.
Poor communities are also places that leave less space for physical activity. Often neighborhoods are considered unsafe for children to play outside and there are significantly fewer available parks, green spaces, sports fields, public pools, or beaches. Not to mention that those who labor away at multiple jobs to support their families have much less leisure time to engage in physical activity.
Our eating and exercise habits come from a young age and so it’s no surprise that obese children are more likely to grow up into obese adults. Eating habits come not only from having positive role models but also from access to healthy foods. The lack of healthy food options at schools, particularly schools in low-income areas, and the recent elimination of physical education in schools have led to increased levels of obesity among children.
There are other, less tangible factors, too, like the stress of economic insecurity. New research has shown how the stress of being poor creates hormones that adversely affect the immune system and promote weight gain. And mothers who suffer from this stress are more likely to have children predisposed to obesity because of these stress factors.
How can we respond to this crisis?
The first point of understanding that is critical in response to the obesity crisis is to refrain from blaming weight problems on bad eating habits and a lack of willpower. There are families who truly do not have access nor resources to make healthy food choices.
And the truth is: this is a global epidemic. All over the world policy campaigns that attempt to steer consumers towards healthier foods, through everything from taxes, outright bans, or restrictive legislation, have not really shown to make a dent in reducing obesity.
It seems that the solutions are actually simpler and more community-based. If we focus one block at a time, allowing the residents of each building to develop their own creative responses and provide logistic and/or material support, we could see some more meaningful and sustainable change. For example, purchasing treadmills for the inhabitants to share or finding weekly rideshare options to the closest grocery store selling fresh produce.
In this way, it’s about harm reduction. Knowing that strict sanctions will not upend the system and turn poor communities into the world’s most healthy inhabitants, we have to be realistic. And it’s realistic to make healthy eating and exercising somehow possible locally and incrementally, firstly stopping the epidemic from worsening, while it will certainly be a slow process.