Food For Thought

Salt, school lunches and the intersection of food, wellness and public policy.

Does This Economy Make My Butt Look Big?

How financial woes can increase your waistline & bottom-line

Recession pounds. Believe it or not, bigger waistlines are not uncommon when the economy goes south. Downturns in personal finances lead to tighter food budgets, with people selecting fewer, higher cost items like fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and low fat meats in favor of less expensive choices rich in refined sugars and fat. Several studies link obesity with low income. For example studies conducted in California suggest that a 10% rise in poverty translates into about a 6% increase in obesity incidence in adults. Adam Drewnowski, PhD of the University of Washington reported a fivefold difference in obesity rates in Seattle depending on the zip code, with low-income zip codes have a much higher rate of obesity.


What does this all mean? America is already the fattest country in the world with levels of obesity related diseases such as diabetes skyrocketing among the economically disadvantaged. Temporary setbacks in personal income may have long term effects depending on how the person copes with sudden financial change and what choices they make. For example, financial difficulties may go hand in hand with depression leading to overeating of calorie-rich, cheaper foods. I had a consult just the other day with a man who lost his mortgage broker job about 10 months ago. He was recently diagnosed with hypertension, a condition he thinks developed as a result of gaining 40 pounds since his unemployment began. Complaining of depression and overeating at night, he said that he hasn't the energy to exercise and often eats from the dollar menu at the fast food joint up the street. This guy is not alone. Several unemployed women have shown up with the same symptoms, often saddled with concerns about feeding their families nutritious foods while keeping a tight budget. Make no mistake, recession pounds are very real.

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In times of chaos, people not only seek cheaper foods, but also comfort foods. Restaurants like Cracker Barrel have reported an increase in orders of mac and cheese and chicken and dumplings. Recession-resistant industries like Hershey's chocolate and budget liquor outlets continue to see profits sweetened by the increasing demand for chocolate and booze. On the flip side, Whole Foods and other organic retailers have seen a downturn in revenue associated with the economy as consumers make more money-conscious food choices. Enabling shoppers to select nutritious foods while on a budget is key to warding off recession pounds.


Here are some practical tips quell recession pounds:
1. Don't shop on an empty stomach. Impulse buying of more costly packaged foods increases when hungry.
2. By ‘in season' fresh produce or go frozen. In season produce is less expensive and frozen is less perishable.
3. Add some spice. Spices can be pricy but a little goes a long way. Using different spices can turn every day dishes into culinary masterpieces.
4. Buy meat in bulk and freeze it. Bulk meats often sell for less so stock up and save.
5. Skip the ‘fortified foods' like vitamin water, energy bars and women's cereals. These extras add to the price tag
6. Adopt a ‘meatless Monday.' Beans, whole grain pasta, and brown rice contain fiber and B vitamins and are less costly than meat, fish and poultry.
7. Want to continue to buy organic? Grocery store chain's private labels have expanded to include organic products at a fraction of the cost of name brands.

Shopping smarter in a slumping economy doesn't have to be difficult. Affordable nutrient rich food choices abound. Beans, eggs, milk, nuts, low fat cheese, and store brands are a good place to start. Frozen veggies and fruits are a more economical than fresh and often more nutrient rich, without the spoilage worry.
Of course, food choices are only part of the picture. Stress caused by financial woes can trigger persistent release of the stress hormone, cortisol, causing fat to be deposited around the waistline. During this economy, nutrition and counseling plans that promote health while being sensitive to income are warranted. Curbing stress through exercise, addressing depression with therapy/support groups and modifying food choices are low-cost strategies to winning the war on recession flab.

 

Martina M. Cartwright, Ph.D., R.D., is an adjunct professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona and an independent biomedical consultant.

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