DALLAS Jan 9 Americans may reduce the amount
they spend on food in response to a sour economy but some
experts fear they may pick up weight in the process.
The specter of "recession pounds" is a concern weighing on
health professionals, who point to numerous studies linking
obesity and unhealthy eating habits to low incomes.
They fear that as people cut food spending they will cut
back on healthy but relatively expensive items such as fresh
fish, fruit, vegetables and whole grains, in favor of cheaper
options high in sugar and saturated fats.
"People ... are going to economize and as they save money
on food they will be eating more empty calories or foods high
in sugar, saturated fats and refined grains, which are
cheaper," said Adam Drewnowski, the director of the Nutrition
Sciences Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"Things are going to get worse," he told Reuters in a
telephone interview. "Obesity is a toxic result of a failing
Drewnowski's own research has highlighted the link between
income and obesity.
"In Seattle we have found that there are fivefold
differences in obesity rates depending on the zip code -- the
low-income zip codes have a much higher proportion of obese
people," he said.
He added that studies in California suggested that a 10
percent rise in poverty translates into about a 6 percent
increase in obesity among adults.
The rate of new cases of diabetes soared by about 90
percent in the United States in the past decade, fueled by
growing obesity and sedentary lifestyles, U.S. health officials
said in October.
Nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of new cases
of diabetes were in the South, a region with huge pockets of
poverty and glaring income disparities.
America already tops the global obesity scales. According
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one
third of U.S. adults -- more than 72 million people -- and 16
percent of U.S. children are obese.
The unfolding recession could inflate U.S. waistlines
further as more and more people fall onto hard times and seek
"The reality is that when you are income constrained the
first area you try to address is having enough calories in your
diet. And cheap sources of calories tend to be high in total
fats and sugars," said Eileen Kennedy, the dean of the Friedman
School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University
RECESSION-PROOF BIG MACS
There is anecdotal evidence to support such concerns
including the success of U.S. fast-food giant McDonald's
(MCD.N), which has a low-priced menu that is high in fat and
Chief Executive Jim Skinner said in October that the
world's largest hamburger chain "continues to be recession
resistant" after it posted a better-than-expected third-quarter
profit, helped by a 7 percent jump in global sales.
It has successfully used its Dollar Menu to maintain its
hold on cash-strapped customers.
One such customer is Dianthe Clements, 36, a mother of two
in Washington, D.C., who struggles to make ends meet stocking
shelves in a shop where she makes $11.27 an hour.
"Some nights we go to McDonald's, they have those value
meals. Sometimes we will have just cereal," she told Reuters.
By contrast, other chains associated with healthier eating
such as Austin-based grocery retailer Whole Foods has seen its
fortunes sag with the economy.
Whole Foods WFMI.O, which thrived prior to the economic
crisis by selling organic, natural and gourmet food at premium
prices, has been hit as cost-conscious consumers trade down to
In November it said that sales at established stores were
up 0.4 percent in the September quarter, compared with an 8.2
percent rise in the year-earlier period.
"We associate poverty with obesity because energy dense
foods are less expensive. More poverty does not have to
translate into more obesity but it certainly could," said Dr.
Robert Eckel, the former president of the Dallas-based American
Drewnowski said it was possible to eat in an affordable and
healthy way, partly by relying on the basic foods which saw
America through the Depression of the 1930s.
"The answer lies in affordable but nutrient-rich foods such
as ground beef, beans, milk, nuts, cheese, carrots, potatoes,
canned tomatoes, soups, and rice," he said, calling it "a diet
for a new Depression."
(Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Additional reporting by Lucia
Mutikani in Washington; Editing by Eddie Evans)