The link between poverty and obesity

Photo by Casey Gomez

In recent decades, health professionals and the general public have drawn attention to rising obesity rates in the United States. Adjacent to the concern grew a body positivity movement centered on fat positivity. This movement, also called size acceptance and fat activism, spans social media sites, blogs, magazines, performance art and other media.

While many claim that the fat positive movement glorifies obesity, the movement also draws attention to two inescapable truths that need to be addressed, no matter who brings them into the spotlight.

The first truth is that conventionally attractive people tend to be treated better by society as a whole, while those who do not fit standards of beauty — especially women — are unfairly perceived to be less intelligent, less competent and even less kind. Fat activists argue (accurately) that fat people face discrimination in the workplace, education, healthcare and media portrayals, which leads to more psychological and physiological problems. Worth is too closely tied to a person’s outward appearance.

The second truth, which is less intuitive, is that it is easier to be healthy if you are more economically privileged.

The United States stands out when it comes to the relationship between poverty and obesity. Worldwide, more developed countries tend to have higher rates of obesity. The US, however, tends to have higher rates of obesity in areas of lower income. The reason is because economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, both urban and rural, do not have access to the same variety of healthy produce and non-processed foods as wealthier communities.

These areas are called food deserts, which are defined by the USDA as lacking grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers. In food deserts, more accessible sources of food include fast food restaurants and convenience stores, locations whose menus include processed and less healthy foods. In addition to lack of healthy food, impoverished areas sometimes also lack parks, gyms and safer places to get exercise.

You cannot reasonably expect a community without access to fresh, healthy foods to have the same physical health as a more advantaged community.

Addressing obesity in any form would also require addressing poverty and food deserts. A study from the American Diabetes Association found that American counties with poverty rates over 35 percent often have obesity rates 145 percent greater than that of wealthier countries, and that those same counties have higher rates of sedentariness, which is linked to poor health, obesity, diabetes and other metabolic disorders. Many fat activists and bloggers have noted this connection, though they also caution tying food justice to size acceptance as that would, in the words of multiple activists, “problematize fat bodies.”

While obesity itself can lead to health issues ranging from diabetes to heart attacks, the fat positivity movement discusses deeper issues that other positivity movements have failed to address.

The more obvious issue is that of self-confidence and body positivity, but Americans must also develop an understanding of the relationship between obesity and poverty in this country, regardless of views on fat activism overall.