The Link Between Hunger and Obesity

When most people imagine what hunger looks like, they imagine emaciated children with protruding bones and bare feet, likely to be found somewhere in war-torn Africa. But what if you saw a child that was overweight, or even obese. Could that child possibly be hungry? If they are obese, surely they are getting enough to eat, right?

This is one of the problems with identifying hunger in America. Although these problems appear to be contradictory, hunger and obesity are actually very closely related. How so? People experience hunger for many reasons, but almost all of them can be traced back to poverty. Some people simply cannot afford food, or have budgets so tight that they do not know where there next meal is coming from. When they do buy food, they are looking to fill themselves up. Junk foods are cheap, easy, and offer immediate gratification. This explains the paradox of why many people shopping at food pantries appear overweight, rather than emaciated.

In addition to financial access to food, some people lack physical and geographic access. While not incredibly common, a population of America’s poor lives trapped in what is known as a food desert. For these people, there is no accessible supermarket. Fresh produce (and often frozen produce) is out of the question. While canned vegetables, dried beans and whole grains may be available; many of America’s poor don’t know what to do with these foods, or how to combine them into a satisfying meal. Processed snack foods are cheap and have extremely long shelf lives, making them attractive choices to people that suffer from hunger or food insecurity. Simply put, empty calories are much easier to come by.

Looking for more information on this topic? I highly recommend A Place at the Table, the new documentary film that came out about a month or two ago. The film explores problems of poverty and food security across America, and gives excellent examples of how obesity and hunger are so closely related. Another resource regarding the paradox of hunger and obesity is the book Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel. I haven’t read it yet, but it is definitely on my list. Lastly, here is a USDA interactive map to find food deserts in America.

Images via GristMagnolia Pictures

– Kelly


Food Stamp Challenge

Initial Shop

Recently in the news, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey attracted attention by declaring that he would spend a week living off of food stamps, meaning that he would only spend the amount of money that the average SNAP participant receives. (SNAP stands for supplemental nutrition assistance program, and is the official term for the food stamp program) For him, this amounts to about $30/week.

A week on food stamps? Challenge accepted! This summer, I had a similar assignment for my dietetic internship. Not only was I asked to spend only $21.90 for 5 days worth of food, but also the meals had to be nutritionally sound, and we had to analyze our diet for the 5 days to see if there were any nutritional gaps. For those of you that think it is too difficult to eat healthy on a budget, keep reading.

The Challenge: To make sure that I stayed within budget, I made a grocery list of things that I would need. I figured that peanut butter sandwiches would be cheap for lunch because I know that meat is expensive. I also decided to have pasta for dinner, because pasta is notoriously cheap, and one pound of cheap ground meat would last me the week as well. I opted for frozen vegetables because they were very inexpensive, and I selected inexpensive fruits such as bananas or seasonal peaches. The non-organic milk wasn’t too expensive, and I opted for fruit juice sweetened regular yogurt instead of Greek yogurt. For reference, I did my shopping at the HEB in the Hancock Center in Austin, TX, during June of 2012.

Initial shop: $27.89 worth of food

Initial Shop

Leftovers after 5 days: $5.17 worth of food (milk not pictured, about 3.5 cups left)


Total Spent on Food: $22.72 (27.89-5.17). Only $0.82 over budget!!

The grapes were the most expensive things I bought, followed by the peanut butter. I think the peanut butter was a good investment though, because it is filling and will last a long time. It is also nutritious, because I selected an organic peanut butter with no added sugar, salt, or oils. It is just peanuts. There were also cheaper yogurts that I could have selected, but I didn’t want any with artificial sweeteners, fat, or an excess of sugar or calories. If I were to do this again, I would have been more careful with the fruit. One cup of bananas is only $0.16, while one cup of peaches is $0.47, and one cup of grapes is $0.87. That is a huge difference! Bananas are practically free, but grapes are almost a dollar per serving. I would also look more at coupons. I did not use any ads or coupons during this assignment, and that is another thing that I could have utilized.

Typical Meals:



Breakfast: 2 packets Apple Cinnamon flavored instant oatmeal (prepared with water), 1 cup skim milk


Lunch: PB Banana Sandwich on Wheat, 1 cup fruit (either 2 small peaches or 1 cup of grapes), 1 non fat yogurt cup


Dinner: Spaghetti noodles, 1 cup green veggies, ½ cup marinara sauce, 3 oz ground turkey (85% lean, fat drained), 1 cup mixed veggies, 12 oz skim milk

The Results: To me, nutritionally sound means following the general guidelines of the food pyramid. So I made it a priority to get 2 cups of fruit, 2 cups of vegetables, and 3 cups of fat free dairy each day, as well as making half of my grains whole. The only nutrients that I got less than 50% of my RDA in were Omega-3’s (26%), Omega-6’s (17%), and Vitamin E (25%). I can imagine that omega-3’s are hard to get in the food stamp population because they are found in more expensive foods.

This diet was a bit challenging to follow at the beginning, because I was hungry after dinner and wanted to snack. Breakfast was definitely too small for me, but I packed a big lunch that I snacked on throughout the day. By the third day, I was used to my new eating pattern and wasn’t hungry anymore.

As you can see, it IS possible to eat nutritionally sound meals on a budget. You just have to have a game plan.

  • To learn about eligibility requirements for SNAP, click here.
  • To learn how to apply for SNAP benefits, click here.
  • The USDA has four food plans for different income levels: liberal, moderate cost, low cost, and thrifty. For recipes and tips from the USDA on how to eat healthfully on a thrifty food plan, click this link, and scroll down to “Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals”.