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The Link Between Poverty and Obesity



There are many factors that determine who will struggle with obesity. In a general, people living in poverty are more prone to obesity than their financially better off counterparts. However, gender, ethnicity and education also play a significant role. Socioeconomic status can predict obesity in women, but cannot reliably predict obesity in children or men. Female children follow more of a predictable track with obesity than male children. (National Institute of Health) This is because there is no significant difference in men with obesity across the various socioeconomic statuses. Ethnicity also plays a significant difference in obesity rates, with minorities having higher rates of obesity. And people with a college degree are less likely to become obese than people with a high school diploma or less.


Even with these factors in place, there’s still a general trend of higher obesity rates existing in poor communities. Why? It’s because low-income communities are more likely to have reduced access to resources, lower food quality and food insecurity, and poor living conditions.

Reduced Access to Resources

Low-income communities tend to have limited access to resources required to maintain a healthy lifestyle. There tends to be fewer parks and recreational facilities in their neighborhoods. They also tend to experience higher levels of crime and violence, which can make outdoor activity more restrictive. All of these factors contribute to a more sedentary lifestyle, which is a major contributing factor to obesity.


Sedentary individuals move 2 hours per day less than active individuals and expend less energy, and they are thereby prone to obesity, chronic metabolic disease, and cardiovascular death. […] Overall, the poorest counties have the greatest sedentariness and obesity.

Food Insecurity and Lower Food Quality

Low-income families are more likely to be food insecure, meaning they do not always have the means to eat regularly. Even when they aren’t food insecure, many cannot afford fresh food, instead having to buy heavily processed items. Their eating habits are often affected by a “lack of access to healthy and affordable foods; cycles of food deprivation and overeating; high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression; fewer opportunities for physical activity; greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products; and limited access to health care.” Access to healthy or unhealthy food has a significant impact on health, chronic disease, mental illness, childhood development and well-being in both the short and long term. Children raised in food insecure homes are prone to chronic disease, poor mental health and are “likely to be sick more often, recover from illness more slowly, and be hospitalized more frequently. Lack of adequate healthy food can impair a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school and is linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems from preschool through adolescence.

Poor Living Conditions

Low-income families are more likely to live in poor living conditions. They are more likely to experience tobacco exposure, lead exposure, poor oral and physical health, poor growth, developmental risks, learning disabilities, behavioral and emotional problems, unintentional injury, physical inactivity, exposure to violence and food insecurity. Poor health caused by a poor living condition can contribute to their sedentary lifestyle and drain the funds that would otherwise be used on food.

Related | What Are Social Determinants of Health and What Does it Mean for Community Action?

Obesity isn’t just someone who eats fast food all the time. Obesity is the result of a sedentary lifestyle. Obesity is the result of reduced access to healthcare. Obesity is the result of poor living conditions that they can’t afford to remedy. Obesity is the result of having to buy food in quantity, instead of quality.


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