The new face of poverty is fat


Twenty years ago, I parked at a supermarket, near where a poor family had just parked. I knew they were poor, because they looked like poor folks are supposed to look: Their clothes were worn (but mended and clean). Their car was an aging sedan. They were recycling a trunkful of aluminum cans. As I locked my car, they took the handful of change they got for the cans, and headed in ahead of me. There were three of them--man, woman, child--and all three were skinny. It's unusual to see that now. The new face of poverty is fat.

Poor people being skinny was already getting to be unusual twenty years ago, or I probably wouldn't remember it so vividly. Now, the fat person going to the food bank is a cliche.

I've thought about it a lot in the years since then. How can poor people be fat?

I've read a lot about the topic, and there are a lot of answers. Some focus on the food (healthy food is expensive, empty calories are cheap). More focus on the people (poor people are stupid, poor people are ignorant about good nutrition, poor people are lazy, poor people are too busy working two jobs to get enough exercise, poor people are too tired after working two jobs to get enough exercise, poor people don't have access to fitness centers, poor people don't have access to kitchens, poor neighborhoods have lots of fast-food restaurants and few farmers markets).

I think the answer, though, comes down to hunger.

Hunger is a powerful force--powerful enough to make a question like "If a hungry man steals a loaf of bread to feed his family, is it really theft?" a genuine ethical conundrum. Hungry people will do almost anything to get food--and for people with hungry children, you can delete the "almost."

The feeling of "hunger" is constructed in your brain based on many different inputs. A lot of research has gone into understanding what makes people feel hunger. (Particularly from drug companies who could make a fortune from a diet drug that worked, but also other kinds of scientists.) It turns out, though, that hunger is deeply wired into the human brain--it doesn't just depend on getting enough calories. Among other things, it depends on getting all the important nutrients, although it's not as simple as just that either.

If you're poor and hungry, you buy the cheapest calories you can find. If you eat that stuff until you no longer feel hungry, you're eating too many calories. That's why poor people are fat.

It's especially sad, because it actually is possible to eat a good, healthy diet pretty cheaply. Unfortunately, it's not cheap and easy--it's really quite complex. You have to know about nutrition. You have to have the use of a kitchen, and time to cook. You have to have access to fresh vegetables.

There are a number of good articles on the topic here on Wise Bread, starting with Sarah's recent Healthy eating--it'll cost you, Andrea's Why is it so expensive to be healthy, and Tannaz's Save the world and save a dime: eat locally. Be sure to look at some of the great articles Myscha has written on cheap, healthy eating. I've written two: Eating locally on a budget and Healthy recipes with cost data.

The way to get cheap and healthy together is to eat real food without worrying about whether it's organic or local or not. You can get better vegis at the farmers market or from community supported agriculture--but whatever vegis are cheap in the produce department at the grocery store will still be better than some packaged food product full of partially hydrogenated soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup.

It's the real food that's the key. Ninety percent of what you bring home from the grocery store shouldn't have an ingredients list--it should be ingredients. Food has gotten more expensive, but rice and beans are still cheap. Only in America do the truly poor eat meat twice a day--but even meat is still cheap, if you buy what's on sale. Again, it won't be as good or as healthy as meat from animals that were locally raised in a humane fashion, but it will be both healthier and cheaper than eating at a fast-food restaurant.

Once you're eating real food, trying to source more of it locally will get you better food--and food that is sometimes cheaper and often almost as cheap. Check out the Eat Local Challenge for lots of information about eating local food cheaply.

Of course, the people reading this know all that. I don't know how to get the word out to the people who don't. But I do know that you can be hungry and fat. If you're poor in today's world, it's very nearly automatic.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

You know, I'm glad you mentioned the healthy eating it'll cost you post (which I unfortunately haven't had the time to comment on yet) along with all the rest of them (and thanks for my link as well). My husband and I talk about this from time to time and another friend and I have been discussing it quite a bit lately.

The bad food is cheaper. As healthy as we eat, we know there is more we could do and are finally getting in a position to try out a few additional things. One example that comes immediately to mind is the difference between bulk white rice and bulk organic brown rice / or bulk barley. When you are really struggling to put every penny to the best use and still make ends meet, it sure is easy to grab the rice that's 20 cents a pound versus the rice that's closer to a dollar a pound if not more than a dollar a pound. They are both real food, but one is way better for you nutritionally. Chana dahl is another example of being higher per pound than yellow lentils / split peas. Nothing wrong with either, but one is way lower on the glycemic index scale.  We have finally managed to make the switch from honey to organic agave nectar, and feel good about that. But some people would find being able to afford either a stretch. Specialty flours versus white flours can also rack up in cost for someone just starting out. Sure, you can bake the bread, but how much healthier is it if you can't afford flax seed or oat bran to add to the mix? Or even whole wheat flour?

I am in total agreement with starting with real food for sure. I have found though, that is only the first in a series of battles. And if you add in the organic factor . . . wow . . . you can really get soaked. I'm interested to see how this discussion unfolds. Cool post, as usual.

Guest's picture

I am poor and fat but when you stand in line to get food from a food pantry for an hour you eat what you get and a nutritionist tood me that the food that I was receving was not good for me what could I do. A persons got eat. So I'm still poor and fat but going to school to better myself so I will not be poor any more.

Guest's picture

"If a hungry man steals a loaf of bread to feed his family, is it really theft?" a genuine ethical conundrum.

Yes, it is theft. Theft is taking something that is not yours, which is what the hungry man does when he steals.

The REAL question you are trying to point out is, if a hungry man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, is it wrong.

There is no conundrum when you ask "is it really theft" - you're asking "is stealing theft?" to which the answer is a clear yes. But if you're asking whether it is wrong or not... that's more of a conundrum.

Guest's picture

wow, way to totally miss the point of the article.

Guest's picture

I've been working in a food-related ad agency in LA this past year. Near where I sit is a huge cupboard of food, regularly replenished, and a freezer full of ice cream. Much of this is either a client's brand, or is bought in bulk from Walmart or Office Depot. i.e. it's mostly junk.

As a result I've been eating junk food. Lots of it. I eat heavily salted peanuts, 'oatmeal bars', chips and of course lots of ice cream. I've probably gained about 10 pounds since starting here!

But what I'm strongly noticing lately is how HUNGRY I am, all the time at work. I munch and munch - yet feel very empty. So an hour or so later I browse the dismal supply and choose yet another salty, high sugar and fat, low-nutrition item containing more trans-fat than I would ever eat normally.

This constant intake of junk with constant craving for more is a new experience for me - normally I'm a pretty sensible eater.

I can TOTALLY understand how poor people can become obese, in a desperate attempt to extract some small amount of nutrition from the thousands of cheap calories consumed.

For various (mostly good) reasons it's difficult for me to make sensible choices in this situation, and I'm tempted to quit this otherwise great job just to save my health!

Guest's picture

Your body needs a certain amount of nutrients and will demand food (make you feel hunger) as long as it does not get the needed nutrients.

When there is little nutrients in food, you will need to eat more to get enough nutrients and put the worthless "bulk" somewhere. That's how you gain weight.

Stress (becoming unaware) and lack of exercise (45 minutes of fast walking every day do wonders) are another reason.

Guest's picture

I was emailed this link no to long ago. It sounds like while more poor then not are over weight that that problem isn't religated to that area.

Guest's picture
Jon A

We probably all know why this post is important now, and so I won't give any more publicity to the ignorance that has been perpetuated in some circles.

I thank you for this post.

Philip Brewer's picture

There are whole treatises written on what is theft. (Here's one:

Intent is one factor--you have to intend to deprive the owner of the thing for it to be theft. (So, if your coworker leaves his toolbox in the back of your truck and you drive off with it, that isn't theft--you took something that wasn't yours, but you had no intent to deprive the owner.)

If you take a loaf of bread with the intent to feed your family (and with utter indifference to whether you are depriving the owner of the loaf of bread), one can at least argue about whether it meets the definition of theft.

As you go on to say, though, it is the ethical rather than the definitional argument that's interesting.

Philip Brewer's picture

I certainly don't mean to imply that obesity isn't a public health issue that affects rich and poor alike.

There are plenty of fat rich people--but there have always been fat rich people. For hundreds of years the standard caricature of the monied interests was a fat man in expensive clothes. Fat poor people is new. If only it weren't so unhealthy, we could herald it as yet another advancement in society--we're so rich even our poor people are fat!

But it is unhealthy. And, almost as bad, people's negative attitudes toward obesity add to their negative attitudes toward poverty in ways that hurt people who need help.

Guest's picture

I hate it when OMGtehfatz gets brought up on sites that have nothing to do with health, wellbeing, realistic conversation re: fat/"overweight"/obesity issues.

There is always correlation brought up about how the po' folks are the fat ones- and invariably, discussion occurs with great circle jerk clucking of tongues about fat people seen at Walmart, with junkfood, at McDonalds, etc.

May I point out a few things? Chiefly, the only reason OMGtehfatz people are remembered for being seen in these scenarios is that the media presents us biggies (usually with accompanied video of the head cropped off- like being fat in public is a crime) as being big eaters (with a big sloppy burger or donut being consumed), lazy (how dare we not belong to a gym to the tune of x hundred dollars/month?!?), etc. Morals about how fat is bad (using up more resources, more expensive health care blablabla) are spit out with each and every diabtribe against us. As is starting to happen here.

Fat people can't be responsibel with their money- if only they'd buy x from the health food store- they'd be thin. Way to generalize.

However, you all are missing the biggest story behind all the recent kerfuffle. A large (no pun intended) portion of those who are considered "overweight" or "obese" are only classified as such because of the government's changing defination of these terms. There probably aren't statistically *that many* more biggies now than there were a decade ago. But- change the defination and BOOM. It's an epidemic. Proceed to running in a circle and wringing your hands. The population is aging. The biggest group- the boomers- is now at the biological age where historically, guess what- a couple more pounds here and there add on and activity lessens. BUT since this generation opts to fight aging (with all the potions, lotions, weekend warrior of it all)at any cost- these pounds are no longer to be expected- they are to be demonized. The medical machine is also seeking to redefine what a heart attack is- wanna debate we will see an "epidemic: of heart attacks if this happens? Must be from the epidemic of fatties!

Who makes the money from more ill "not healthy" people? Big pharma- from making up more pills, books, diet plans, gastric bypass surgery, etc; government- from messing around with statistics, studies they play with in bed with big pharma and medicine, etc.- and of course the food industry- because they can mess around with definations of healthfulness and food products based upon the whim of the day as to what will help folks lose their demon fat.

Might I also add the personal is political when it comes to fat. Look at how the politicians go on about obesity initiative in their platforms. Makes me feel ike I should live life with a small suitcase by the back door- in case I need to escape to Canada before I am shipped of to a camp somewhere (think I am joking- read Paul Campos' latest article- google to find it- there is discussion about "wellness training camps" under way... by some of the ultra righties)

I recommend any *really* interested people to open their eyes a bit more before starting to make moral, snappish judgements on groups of people. I also recommend a site called "Junkfood Science" that debunks 99% of the crap science blown across our headlines about health, wellness, and obesity.

But of course, I will just be discounted by many as a fattie with a chip on my shoulder by a certain number of readers-- and fatties certainly can't know anything about anything if they can't get it as to how be "healthy" (aka "thinner")

Guest's picture

I forgot to rant about how big pharma, government etc profit from the perfect scapegoat group of people who are obviously sabotaging themselves. Know why Weight Watchers has *so many* success stories? The have *so many* repeat customers. When fat people fail at weight loss- its their fault- not the fault of the process itself. They are guaranteed repeat customers from "failure"- which is basically the body right sizing itself to where nature/genetics would have it be. They don't *really* want success- they are happy to know that only 5% of weight loss dieters keep the pounds off. They have potential for 95% repeat customers.

End rant.

Philip Brewer's picture


I'm not quite sure what I said that you're objecting to.

First of all, I thought it went without saying that the media presentation of fat people (and especially fat poor people) was very much what I was trying to address here.

Second, I try very hard to keep up with the science on health issues. The most recent research I've seen has been very much against the notion that there will ever be a potion to cure obesity or to capture for fat people the health advantages of being thin. Further, the health advantages of being thin look more and more to be just that--health advantages of being thin. Eating a poor diet and then adding 7 servings of vegis to it doesn't make it healthy. (Even though statistically people who eat 7 servings of vegis are much healthier than people who eat very few.)

Third, I don't know if there are more fat people now than there were 10 years ago, but I think there are unquestionably more fat people now than there were 50 or 60 years ago--just look at crowd-scene photos from the 1940s and 1950s.

Finally, I think cheap, healthy food is very much a core topic for this site.

The forces that have come together to make it cheaper and easier to eat a poor diet than to eat a good diet are evil, but not the sort of evil that it's easy to fight against. I choose to fight by advocating for people to eat real food. It's healthy, and (with a bit of effort) it can be cheap, too.

It's a core topic not only for the site, but also for me.

Linsey Knerl's picture

This is a very interesting article.  I can see every point made as a valid one, because the topic is certainly not black and white.  Things that I have learned on this subject:

When we were our poorest, we were our thinnest.  Not because we didn't eat well.  We just cut out any extras.  We ate alot of filling veggies, rice, beans, apples, homemade bread, oatmeal, etc.  (things that cost very little and filled us up a long time.)

Then one year we were able to get a little help from the government in the form of food stamps.  I was SHOCKED at the amount of food money the government gave us that first month.  There was NO way we could ever use that much money -- even for a family as large as ours. It was 5-7 times what we normally would spend.  We found that with all that extra money, we were walking the aisles of the grocery stores, drooling at all the possibilities.  Snack cakes, chips, pop, and all these "treats" that we had never before been able to afford suddenly crept into our diet.  After I put on a few pounds and realized that I was cooking way less and microwaving much more, we put a kabosh on it.  We started living on the amount that we had before.  2 months of food assistance lasted my family 7 months!

I had never felt so good as when my husband got that much-prayed-for job, and we were able to walk into the service office and ask that they close our help file. There was no longer a means to a lifestyle that was unhealthy for my family.  It was easier to make healthy choices when your resources were limited and entirely your own.

That being said, the WIC program was the exact opposite.  For your monthly allotment of milk, eggs, cheese and sugarless cereal, I had to have all my children's fingers poked for blood tests, meet with a nutritionist regularly, and tell the intimate details of my health and welfare to complete strangers.  But at least they were nice about it.

Both programs are designed to do the exact same thing.. but they are run very differently.

When I am in Walmart the first week of the month, it is amazing to see the lines of families who had just gotten their food stamps.  Cases of pop and the largest bags of chips I have EVER seen fill many of the carts.  I never used to understood why they would do this.  Having been there, I can kind of see it now. 


Great discussion you've brought up! 

Guest's picture

A good social observation, but the author needs to distinguish one small thing, only in western cultures are poor people fat. Asiatic, Middle-eastern, and African countries certainly do not have fat poor people, even the middle-class of these countries are not obese, unlike the American middle-class, who make up the largest percentage of our grossly obese.

Guest's picture

Luke brought up a great point. High carb foods make you feel hungrier faster and more frequently. So if your eating lots of the cheap poverty foods you are consuming large amounts of carbos.

I had to seriously restrict my carbohydrate intake as part of some dietary changes my doctor had me do for some various reasons. The biggest thing I noticed was after I made these changes I don't crave food anymore. I get hungry, I eat but it is more of a thought process about what to eat based on nutrition rather than OMG I need potato chips right now. When you eat really carbo heavy food you get those blood sugar swings and cravings and need to eat something to turn that off. Low blood sugar really can't be ignored away.

I'm sure that leads to some of the extra eating of empty calories on top of it being the main stay of someone's diet. But the kind of dietary changes I had to make are really expensive. We do try to lessen it by picking veggies and fruit that is in season and on special, same with meats and use brown rice, lentils, split peas and beans to round it out.

Guest's picture

From The obesity epidemic -- the health report -- ABC RADIO NATIONAL

Norman Swan: Are you postulating here a fructose conspiracy, the way the tobacco industry had a nicotine conspiracy?

Robert Lustig: Well I can't call it a conspiracy per se. I certainly know, and they certainly know that they sell more of it when they add the fructose to it. That's why it's in there, otherwise why would it be in there? Do they know that this is actually harmful? That's what I don't know. There's no smoking gun, ultimately we found the smoking gun for smoking, you know we found the documents. I'm not prepared to say that about the food companies. I do not know that they know that they are hurting us. However, they definitely know they sell more, and it temporally coincides with the advent of fructose being added to our diet.

Norman Swan: And of course you could argue that it's going up because they are responding to the market and they've got sugar-free, fat-free etc. etc.

Robert Lustig: Well in fact fat-free doesn't help, if anything as the fat content of our foods has gone down, and it has gone down, it's gone from 40% to 30%, in fact our obesity prevalence has gone way up. So that's not the answer.

Norman Swan: This is because they're adding carbohydrates and sugars to it to replace the fat.

Robert Lustig: Absolutely, in fact fat does not raise your insulin but certainly sugar does. And fructose has been bandied about...because after all it doesn't raise your insulin directly because there's no fructose receptor on your beta cell in your pancreas. So people say well it doesn't raise your insulin, but in fact it does because it's a chronic effect not an acute effect. This has nothing to do with one fructose meal, this has to do with a year's worth of fructose meals, or a lifetime's worth of fructose meals, because as you become insulin resistant, which fructose clearly does and has been shown by many investigators not just me -- that interferes with that leptin signal which causes you to eat more.

Norman Swan: Insulin-resistance increases your insulin levels because your pancreas pumps out more to get the insulin working.

Robert Lustig: Exactly, especially since your liver is not responding to it because of that effect on the serine phosphorylation of the insulin receptor. So that's going to cause you to make a whole lot more insulin, that's going to interfere with your leptin, that's going to make you eat more so the whole thing just keeps going out of control.

Norman Swan: One way of proving this would be to put you on a fructose free diet, has anybody done that?

Guest's picture

Here's something else different about the poor family you saw 20 years ago - you saw two parents.
You probably didn't see cigarettes.
I'll bet a nickel they didn't have cable tv , either.
I used to live in the projects.
No tv, shopped pretty much as you describe, don't smoke *anything*, and buy clothes for the kids and I at a thrift store.
Most of my neighbors were single parents, had tobacco - and other - expensive habits - and were too proud too shop in thrift stores.
Beans and rice ? Tacky. Veggies ? Kids won't eat 'em.
I own my own home now - I'm still friends with some of the same people 10 years after I got out and they didn't.
They think I 'got lucky'.
I think they just don't get it.

Guest's picture

I believe this is so True! Media tells people what they are Entitled to. Our whole standard of life is way out of wack! Congrats and Bless you and your family for seeing through the hype and doing what will truly serve you for a good long life!

Guest's picture

Did you ever consider it might not ALWAYS be food related for a person to be fat? Prior to 2006 and starting one very specific medication, my weight was approx 120 lb which for my height was about average even with the new gov't guidelines. I'd struggled until then to keep my weight that high in fact. After starting the medication, my diet didn't change, my activity level didn't change, my economic status didn't change. But in over a year, I packed on approximately 60 lbs which is common with this medication. To others though, I'm just a fat, poor, uneducated slob who eats too much. Except I honestly have to force myself to eat one meal a day because of a lack of hunger; I'm not uneducated; and while, to many people's standards, I may be poor, I'm doing better money wise than before. As an example of the issue of forcing myself to eat, today from 8 am until 10 pm I ate the equivalent of 2 pudding cups of applesauce and a slice of pizza. So please feel free to generalize. I don't really care because the opinion of others doesn't make or break me. But, in light of the fact that there are others out there who do feel hurt by the stupid generalizations, maybe think before you attribute someone's obesity to lack of money, education, will power, or exercise.

Guest's picture

I think you have missed the point of this article. I don't think this woman is trying to say that poor people are fat because they sit around and eat to much. I think she is trying to say that the foods that most people can afford are not good for you! I think that lower income people, and I am one, can make much better choices with their money. I think it is a lack of education and information, I think if we as a country want to help lower income families we should give them tools to make themselves a better life, physically and environmentally! I am so sick of the fact that tv and media in generally have filled everyones heads full of just crap, lies about what is really important in life!

Guest's picture

I shop frequently at a 99 cent store--everything is 99 cents. It carries food, and on a recent trip I bought a sack of apples, a sack of pears, a sack of potatoes, a package of Romaine (two heads)and a package of assorted bell peppers. All for $4.95. There were a lot of people who looked fairly poor there (not that I'm wealthy--my income is pretty small, as I retired early). They were passing over all the vegetable bargains and were buying stacks of cheap frozen pizza, packages of cheap lunch meat, and loaves of white bread. They weren't even buying the sacks of potatoes--they were buying frozen french fries. Although I eat a lot more junk food than I need, these folks were skipping really great bargains to buy empty foods. That appears to me to be an education problem. The schools really need to address this need for nutritional information.

Guest's picture

Absolutely! This is right on in my opinion! We should also teach our children that caring for themselves as a person is the right thing, NOT trying to be like people they see on tv. I think tv is probably the most horrible thing that ever happened in America. Most of it is just garbage! Now they tell us and our kids what and who we should be, and its all messed up!

Guest's picture

I shop frequently at a 99 cent store--everything is 99 cents. It carries food, and on a recent trip I bought a sack of apples, a sack of pears, a sack of potatoes, a package of Romaine (two heads)and a package of assorted bell peppers. All for $4.95. There were a lot of people who looked fairly poor there (not that I'm wealthy--my income is pretty small, as I retired early). They were passing over all the vegetable bargains and were buying stacks of cheap frozen pizza, packages of cheap lunch meat, and loaves of white bread. They weren't even buying the sacks of potatoes--they were buying frozen french fries. Although I eat a lot more junk food than I need, these folks were skipping really great bargains to buy empty foods. That appears to me to be an education problem. The schools really need to address this need for nutritional information.

Guest's picture
subsidized guest

It does not take a lot of money to eat well and be healthy.

The photo is interesting because the parents and the 3 children look thin but not starving. This what we strive for today!

I've watched in line at the grocery store, other peoples carts filled to the top with non-foods, lots of over-packaged processed 'foods' and cases of pop and cakes.

Frozen veggies are cheap and healthy and not fattening.
Ripe bananas are cheap and full of potassium (good for your heart)...bake a banana bread and use a 1/3 of the sugar.
Bake something tasty and good for you..bran muffins, no trans fats...

Root vegetables, rice dishes, it's all cheap and stretches out into a few meals. Read the ingredients.
I eat really well and buy good foods. I cook and don't keep junk food around.
My food costs are just a bit less than what my pension allots for food/ month.
The era of that drawing of the family, didn't have the abundance of junk food, nothing like what we have today.

They were more active. Doesn't look like they had TV yet.
It's a mind set.

Medications are often weight gainers, and being educated about foods sure helps a lot.
Starving ones self only puts the stomach into hibernation mode, because it is now storing fats, etc., because it's starving.

Lots of little snacks and meals of non sugar,processed, no deep fried type foods, actually speeds up the stomach and burns calories faster.
Often a person with a big gut, is a constipated person, from not enough fiber and too much sugars and fats. Messes up a person's colon.
Take a few extra minutes and make your lunch and some healthy snacks, when you're going outside. Say bye to fast food restaurants and being fat.

Guest's picture
Tanya Brown

The situations you list in your article are part of why I think it's key for those of us who have gardens to donate our extras to the local food banks and soup kitchens. I often run into times when I'm awash with plums, green beans or what-have-you, and charities are always happy to get them.

The local paper used to run a program called "plant a row for the hungry" and even provided seeds for free or a minimal price. I don't know who thought of it or whether it's common across the country, but it was a great thing.

Guest's picture

Interesting subject. I think there has been a good bit of research lately on the relationship between chronic food insecurity and obesity. People who regularly live with the anxiety of intermittent hunger, such as times of the month before they get their food stamps, will later tend to eat more and more calorically dense foods when food is available in an instinctive attempt to stave off starvation. If your metabolism routinely goes through this roller coaster of insufficient food followed by periods with food, it seems you will crave greater amounts of calories. So people will gravitate to the most fatty or sweet foods which are most calorically dense in an unconscious attempt to protect the body from starvation. This feast and famine cycle, particularly with the cheap ultra-caloric foods available today, is believed to be a leading cause of obesity and insulin resistance in the poor.

I was pleased to see that link to the medical journal article that said that the wealthy are obese at equal or greater levels as the poor.

It is always dangerous to try to take a complex problem such as skyrocketing obesity rates and cast it as a simple issue of moral failing in the poor. It is my observation that the qualities that people fear and despise most in themselves are often projected onto a group of designated outcasts, such as the poor.

Guest's picture

You're trying to equate fatness with poverty is untrue! I am a school teacher and see skinny poor children in my classroom. You would be surprised as to what they eat. Potato chips, cookies, cheese puffs, donuts and cookies are what they eat in my classroom (brought in from home of course) for breakfast. As mentioned these children are skinny. However what you fail to mention is that this and school lunches may be ALL these children get for the day!

You also fail to mention that food today is laden with MSG (to enhance flavor) corn syrup and high fructose (yes it is even in popular yogurts as well) and other additives also cause obesity!
Even popular "organic foods" have been sneaking corn syrup into their products! It doesn't matter if one is rich or poor check labels!!!
As to fruits and veggies you have to make sure that they are not genetically altered in order to get the best nutrients out of them!!

Guest's picture

1) Agave nectar is an expensive source of fructose, which ultimately raises blood glucose (as mentioned above), and it doesn't take much fructose per day to raise the liver's production of cholesterol. Humans have been eating honey a lot longer than any other sweetener and a dab'll do ya.

2) Bananas are a botanical Twinkie, dead last in nutritional value of all fruits, worse than canned fruits; they're just starch/sugar with a bit of fiber and very few nutrients. There are much better sources of potassium, too. And, they're shipped in at great environmental cost.

Guest's picture
Traci Angley

Have you considered how often Depression enters into the fat/poverty mix? Dysthymia is a sort of low-grade depression that never goes away. Its symptoms include lack of energy, weight gain, and increased need for sleep. It is not easily treated and is rarely properly diagnosed. And, you guessed it, it is most prevalent among poor, fat Americans. It is at the back of much of the perceived laziness of this group, and is certainly involved in the food choices made.
I don't know how to fix it, but I thought it should be mentioned.

Guest's picture

Wow, who knew your post could stir up so much emotion.
I guess it goes without saying that topics of the poor and health are not a simple topic that can be summed up in one article as each persons personal experience will color your perspective of the topic.

However, I personally enjoyed the post as it is always good to be reminded that I need to take a look at my personal life and make sure I am living in a way that is the healthiest for my budget.

Guest's picture

The reason why people in America are fat is because you are living a life of historically unprecedent wealth and abundance. Never before has food been so easy to obtain. Our bodies evolved in an environment of scarcity. Dogs have been known to eat themselves to death if given the chance. We are animals too. Some hunter gatherer tribes don't eat every day. When they do catch a large animal they absolutely stuff themselves to the point of near explosion and immobility. There's not much refrigeration in some parts of Africa. If you are surrounded by food and you don't make a deliberate conscious effort to watch your wait and pay attention to nutritional issues You Will Get Fat. End of story. Stress, anxiety and depression may make skinniness not the highest priority in your life. There is no way of losing weight which doesn't involve feeling hungry. If you're already struggling with work, school, relationships, family, etc... Do you really want to add hunger to that struggle? Probably not. Hence, the fat.

Lets all be grateful that we're not starving to death. Problems of the rich....

Guest's picture

I hate to say, but most people I see today are fat, rich or poor. I was Christmas shopping this weekend at the mall (which we never do) and we decided to get some lunch at the food court. My husband and I split a sandwich and a drink and that was fine for us. Meanwhile I looked around at everyone else and could not believe the amount of food they were eating, piled up on their trays. It would have fed us for the entire day. I know this really doesn't have anything to do with being poor b/c oviously if your poor you wouldn't be shopping at the mall, but it just showing people's choices they make.

Guest's picture

I'm with the poster of post number 21. I think the cycle of poverty, the knowing what prolonged hunger feels like that induces people to want to eat more in times of plenty. I had many days of hunger in my early childhood. And even though those days of barren cupboards are far behind me, the memories of them are not. And so, even though it doesn't seem rational, I still have those feelings of wanting to feast in case there's another famine. It's always a struggle.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks for all the good comments.

I hope it was clear that I'm not saying that only poor people are fat--that's obviously not true. But it's only in wealthy countries that poor people can afford enough calories to get fat. That became the case about 40 years ago in the US, maybe a little later in other developed countries, and is still not true in most poor countries.

One thing that I may not have made clear is that I think poor people get fat for much the same reasons that rich and middle-class people get fat--all the factors that various posters have mentioned--diet, exercise, genetics, conditions like depression, side-effects from medications, and so on.

But the same factors that affect everybody have come round on poor people in multiple different ways. The working poor have less time and energy for exercise. The poor have less access to medical care--and so less opportunity to address the medical causes of obesity. The poor have less access to real food--which tends to be an upscale item, more expensive, and easier to find in stores in affluent neighborhoods.

What I hope everyone takes away from this article is that eating real food is the way to go. It's not always as convenient as fast food or convenience foods. It can be as cheap--but it isn't automatically as cheap; it's only cheap for people with kitchens and access to good grocery stores, farmers markets, and gardens. Still, the opportunity for money-saving is significant and the opportunies for health improvement are huge.

Guest's picture

This is only anecdotal, but anyway. I remember seeing a tv documentary with my mother about Holocaust survivors. The survivors were elderly people telling their storiess to the journalist and I remember they were all severely overweight/obese. My mother told me this was a very common aftereffect from the severe hunger of the death camps. People couldn't stop eating afterwards. Maybe someone has the science to back this up. I'm too lazy to go looking.

Guest's picture

I think it's worth pointing out that explaining how poor people can become fat through their food-buying decisions (or lack thereof in reality, when the economics of it all is considered) is not the same as saying that:

a. fat people are fat *only* because of what they eat
b. fat people are poor, lazy, irresponsible, ignorant etc.
c. only poor people are fat
d. all poor people are fat

All of the above statements are clearly false, and their corresponding truths (people are fat for a variety of reasons, fat people may not be poor, poor people may not be fat) don't invalidate the argument that "poor leads to fat" can happen in the way Philip describes. The fact that it doesn't happen *every* time doesn't make it any less of a social issue.

If it happens *at all* shouldn't we recognize it and want to do something about it?

Guest's picture

The reason that people are fat is because people are eating more sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Alcoholism is no longer socially acceptable so people are turning to sugary, carby snacks with no nutritional value to "get high". It doesn't help that the low fat, anti-meat propaganda the media is spreading has pushed people into thinking that as long as they aren't eating something "high fat" then it's healthy, like "Snackwells".

Blaming this on the US or capitalism is just what people who have run out of ideas do. I stopped reading nonsense, socialist rags like the NYTimes long ago and have saved quite a bit of time and aggravation since then.

Guest's picture

I've spent the last couple years trying to go vegetarian, and have learned a lot about foods.

Part of the process of going veggie involved switching to a pretty bland diet heavy on grains and beans. I definitely felt better after a while, but couldn't quite figure out why, until I switched to a mixed veggie/fish diet, and ate more junk food. (BTW, the diet changed because I took on a somewhat stressful job, stacked on top of existing freelance demands, not out of laziness. Maintaining a healthy veggie diet is a lot of work.)

First off, I'm not one of those natural born veggies - meat tastes really good. I still eat a little, and it's like really good drugs. After eating meat, it takes a few days to really get the sensation out of my mind, so I can be vegetarian again.

The same goes for soda and juice. That stuff is addictive.

White bread, white rice, and other low-fiber carbs can give you an insulin rush that's like doing opiates. That's the lunchtime food coma.

Salt isn't that addictive, but, it makes things taste better. It has to be used in moderation.

Fats mixed with salt (aka, butter), is also the same way. They make things taste better.

French fries are like mixing wine, vicodin, cigarettes, and coffee. That kind of describes the diet of, say, Rush Limbaugh, or a young urban badass with a pain-killer prescription. It's "good times" if you're 20 or 25 years old, but when you're older, it's stupid.

Guest's picture

A lot of people throughout WB are assuming that the farmer's markets and buying local are cheaper. We can barely get two apples that were half-rotted by the time they arrived at the store for less than a gourmet frozen dinner and the local growers and farmers' market expects as high as twice that and is in an area of town not accessible to public transportation. We don't have access to a co-op even though all the growers and ranchers around us are members of the one a state over (that we can't join) and the local organic foods stores are so dirty they've been shut down twice by the health board--and even they expect more than the farmers at the market. We've lived in cities half this size that had better and cheaper options, but you have to go where the job takes you. Since Wal-Mart forced everyone else out in this town and we can't afford to shop the local gourmet stores where the wealthy people in town go for fresh foods, we're left with whatever junk Wal-Mart wants to force on us. Since, as I mentioned, the fresh food is rancid and moldy before it even hits the bins and Wal-Mart refuses to stock healthy options in canned and frozen foods, we're left with no choice but to buy and eat heavily syruped fruits, pre-cheesed veggies, and pre-cooked meats. Complaints to the managers and HQ have done nothing and we can't afford to drive hour away for affordable, healthy alternatives. Add to this the fact that our only job options here are sedentary to the point the bosses have fits if employees leave their seat even for a bathroom break and overtime is the rule if you don't want to be unemployed. I can't help but think of those poor working people of the 1930s in the Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis books, only instead of dying from falling into factory machinery, we're dying in front of keyboards and monitors.

Philip Brewer's picture

Oh, we're aware that it's tough to combine eating locally with eating cheaply. You might check out:

More important than eating locally is eating food (as opposed to food-like edible substances):

It sounds like you've investigated all the local options and found them all wanting. Without knowing where you live, I don't really have much to suggest. I will say, though, that "you have to go where the job takes you" is a fine notion in the short term, but perhaps in the medium term a notion like "you have to find a way to support your family that doesn't kill you" might be worth considerable effort to put into practice.

Guest's picture
Regular Guy

If they're fat, they're not poor. You want to see poor? Go to Africa and parts of South America.

The people that you are describing sounds to me like the folks in the US who make bad decisions in general - the so called poor. These people aren't poor. They've got clothing, shelter, food (lot's of it), and in almost all cases a car.

You're describing a run-of-the-mill democrat.

Philip Brewer's picture

I'm not much intererested in arguing about the definition of poverty.

What I'm interested in is trying to get the word out that it's possible to eat a diet that's both healthy and cheap. Sadly, as I say in the article, it's not healthy and cheap and easy. Helping people find their way through the difficulties and complexities is one of our missions, here at Wise Bread.

Guest's picture

I know my whole entire life I grew up very overweight/obese and since Bush has been in office and I have 2 kids to feed, I've lost about 130 pounds in 2 years all b/c I couldn't afford to feed myself and they REFUSE to give welfare to ANYONE that actually, God forbid, NEEDS it!!!

My Hubs is alot thinner, too and it grosses me out, could I just for once in my life be the petite one in the relationship and have a Man bigger enuff than me that he can pick me up? Anyway, we'll be phoneless and homeless, soon so I better enjoy my nets, now. OH! and did I mention my Daughter is newly diagnosed Type1 Diabetic so I REALLY have 2 watch what foods to buy and can't run for the cheap junk anymore?

GOD does my life suck!! I need a sugar Daddy, like, BBBAAADDDD!!!

Guest's picture

I realize this article is a few months old, but I just read it this evening.

In "Steeltown, USSR" (1991) Stephen Kotkin mentions the rapidly rising obesity rate of citizens of the USSR. Production shortages and anti-coop laws (from selling food in a farmers' market to repairing radios in your living room) meant that it was extremely rare for there to be a variety of food choices - including healthy food choices. Stores carried bread and other cheap options, but vegetables and fruits were rare indeed. USSR obesity rates rose steeply as a result.


Guest's picture

It's income, location, the consistent availability of healthy items, eating habits, and short/long-term conditioning of the mind and body that together have an impact on what we eat, why we eat, and how we eat. I grew up in the ghetto where junk foods or otherwise unhealthy snacks were given to children daily -- with the best of intentions (feed the hungry, calm the anxious child, give energy, etc.). As a young college-educated adult, I became a really bad vegetarian for years and then later slipped into all the wrong habits that were developing when I was a "poor child in the inner city". I now work in corporate America but find I still have to penny-pinch because the price of produce is just way too high. 90% of what is in the average grocery store is junk food and I've failed many times when I had the best of intentions. I'm certain that if the desire for the junk food items hadn't been developed when I was a child, I wouldn't be overweight today. It's a cycle, and despite all of our collective wisdom, history has proven that cycles (food, drugs, cigarettes, interpersonal, etc.) are very hard to break.

Guest's picture

In my experience, being raised in a fat and "poor" (yet educated) family, it had to do with two things. One, starches/carbs like pasta, rice, beans, are cheap and filling, but also make you gain weight when eaten in excess. In addition, when you eat a lot of carbs, your blood sugar will drop, making you hungry for more, and so on. It becomes a vicious circle. The other main reason, and even more importantly, is that eating cheap starches to excess can help combat anxiety. It's like a drug, and makes the eater sleepy, too exhausted to worry about paying the bills or dealing with low self-esteem, etc. Not a good way to handle problems, but a common one.

Guest's picture

With the fast food giants and their $1 menus, it is amazing actually 90% is not fat. I understand that feeding a family of four is expensive, especially in today's economy and a single income. However the junk food and the cheap fast food that actually is cheap today, may and will create such health problems that, you may end up paying more to get your health back.

For me being fat mostly ties to not being poor but being uneducated about eating right. I know plenty of people that have the dough, yet they still get their nutrition from pizza and fries.

Our blog's mission is to show you the ways for eating healthy and right, visit us at

Guest's picture

Well I know fat free gets everyone fatter (after a decade + of research) more than a small amount of whole fat product. I don't just mean the psychology of overeating of the low cal food. Rather the fact that the products are dry poorly received by the body, either being rejected as energy and go straight to become fat cells or stress out hormones. Lumpy dead weight grants the same. Eat fresh home plucking's. Partake of the more nutritious organ meats (offal) and be slimmer also rather than consuming the emptier floppier protein only deader weight flesh.

Guest's picture

Groceries are an issue for poor folks, as well, for a number of reasons.

1) Quality. Grocery stores that cater primarily to a poor population that either walks to the store (by necessity, not choice) or takes the bus (ditto, at least in Southern towns) often have poor choices. I would not purchase many of the "fresh" veg at either of the two stores within walking distance of my house. Soft apples, limp celery, cucumbers already developing soft spots ... but canned goods are a problem, as well. Of the cans I checked, at least half were past their sell-by date. Let's not mention the meat or dairy, please. To co0ok well using real ingredients would take a lot of creativity and no little luck if I had to rely on either store.

2) Storage. Apartment kitchens can be minuscule, and that assumes a ratio of one family per kitchen. Houses are no better. In some of the houses near me, one family lives in each bedroom, and all four families share the single kitchen and two bathrooms. Or the house holds grandparents, parents, and several married children.With that population density, whwere do you store helathy food and can you rely in it still being there when it is time to cook?

3) Transportation. If you walk to the store or take the bus, you are limited to what you can carry in your hands or in a wheeled cart. (You see the whole family going shopping around here, with everyone carrying bags home.) I once challenged a colleague, who had gotten on his high horse about the spending habits of some of the poor, to shop as they did. We started from a parking lot of an apartment complex, walked to the bus stop, waited for the bus, walked from there to the store. .... you get my drift.

When you are blind tired, sometimes it is easier to shop at that "neighborhood" store--you know the one, only a little larger than a convenience store, with prices to match and few good choices. But it is on your way home, without taking an extra seven block detour in 95 degree weather with 68% humidity.

I'm not trying to make the claim that people bear no responsibility for what food goes in their mouths. There are plenty of people who have opportunities and who pass them by, who make poor choices from ignorance or habit, not necessity. There are plenty of cuisines, after all, that combine nurtition, flavor, and a lack of expense -- but you have to know how to cook that way and be willing to try foods from other cultures. (Seriously, I have taught adult students, older than I, who have never ever eaten anything "ethnic'" and who were afraid to try.) And you have to see those foods as desirable. There's some research (Winkler, 1998 (?) that indicates that the more acculturated Mexican Americans become to the United States the more gallbladder disease and other diet-related illnesses they contract, and other (Pilcher, date?) looking at the spread of sodas and sugar among the rural Mexican poor. Corn and beans and chiles are cheap --but if they are seen as "poor folks' food" or as "too Mexican" or whatever, and if fast food is what "real city folks / Americans" eat ....

Over at the Simple Dollar Trent observed that frugal options are often seen as indicating poverty. My neighbors certainly bear out that observation. My out-of-work next doors are appalled that I drive a ten year old car and hang my washing out to dry rather than using the dryer, or that I buy resale clothes. Those were the things that separated them from others when they were young, and voluntarily choosing to do them is not something my neighbors understand. And, of course, I have to acknowledge that I do have the luxury of *choice.* If the weather is bad, I have a dryer. When my car becomes unreliable, I will be able to get another one. I *could* buy new clothes. .....

Ignorance also plays a large role. My neighbors are surprised when I change my own locks, or freeze the blueberries from another neighbor's overflowing bushes, or sew something, or bake my own bread / make my own yogurt ... just because *I know how.* I was taught how to gather SKILLS from an early age, and their parents were too busy working to teach them how to do much of anything.

Every person, poor or otherwise, is different. But the problems of poverty are multiple and interlocking, and we need to do what we can. Me, I teach the kids I meet in the local park how to do things ... how to find out on their own how to do things ... and encourage them to believe that they CAN exercise skills. It isn't much. But it is *something*.

Guest's picture

I really enjoyed your post. I think you make some very valuable points. My family and I are from the country as most people would say. We did a two year stint in the cities of Virginia, Hampton, Newport News. The cost of living was horrible, and the living conditions for most matched. It seemed to be either feast or famine for the people who lived there. We came back to the country, and will never leave again! Your points about knowing how to do things are right on. I grew up being taught and watching my parents and other family members, do things for themselves and teaching each other. I think this is the problem today, our society doesn't know basic living skills. My sisters and I are all grown now with grandkids. We as a family still all help each, our husbands don't pay anyone to do anything. They work together when any of us has an issue. If they cant figure it out, they read, ask others they know. People need to work together. Just because you could pay someone to do things, it just doesn't make sense to do it if its possible to do it yourself.

Guest's picture

Lucille (#13) is on the right track, but I think it's more about lack of fiber than carbohydrates per se. Beans, whole grains, whole potatoes (baked, with skin) and other whole fruits and veggies (not juice) are full of carbs but do not spike the blood sugar the same way because they are full of fiber. They are highly nutritious, and can be economical.

I live in the Northwest and do most of my shopping at Winco. This is a large discount grocery store, not a yuppy grocery or organic market. The bulk bins are a bonanza of good food at good prices. Yes, there's some candy and junk, but about 2/3 of the bulk bin food is excellent, minimally processed food, including beans, popcorn, grains, whole wheat bread flour, rolled oats, dried milk, pasta, raisins, yeast and other baking materials, etc. Most of it is not organic, but it's "real food". Between the bulk bins and the produce, with perhaps a couple dozen eggs and some oil, I could feed my family of 3 very well for $100/month.

Sadly, I see people of all apparent income levels passing these bulk bins by, and buying packaged mac and cheese and other junk. In this case, it's not a question of access -- they have access to the same foods I do. It's a question of education and preference. I'm not saying that's true everywhere... inner cities are notorious for lack of grocery stores. But it's true here.

Guest's picture
Uncle B

Americans traditionally worshiped the bigger stronger, farmhand, soldier, factory worker, movie star. Survivability in Industrial America depended on a lot of brawn, some sly thinking capacities and a very strong back, combined with an emotional brutality for enduring very bad conditions, physically, psychologically emotionally, and health-wise! America responded with the toughest breed industrial worker, as the world had never seen before, and ruled the world industrially through his greatness! Suddenly, in less than one generation, "smart" factories in Asia employing only little yellow 89 pound ladies, living in factory dorms, eating factory cafeteria foods, and pooping in slot toilets on the factory floors, aided by electronically driven hydraulics and electrics, exceeded the output abilities of the American master-race industrial worker! and before America could curtail his breeding, America was flooded with his off-spring - at the very time that the Uber-Rich of the world elected to move capital to the Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai markets, and moving American manufacturing to Asia at the same time! It is no mystery that America is flooded with case hardened huge, brawny oafs! They once were our most valued asset, but now, an expensive load on the welfare lines, jobless and pointlessly big and strong! A high energy army of 1950's factory workers with nothing to do except gain weight and die! The West was won long ago, the Armed forces now use sophisticated lady-operated weapons, and a big man with a strong back and a big appetite has no place in the new "American Dream" The paradigm shift was sudden and final, and these folks must live out lives of legacy to a once powerful industrial America that no longer exists!

Guest's picture

...are you aware that poor people probably don't have access to a computer? so really you are just writing this to judge poor peoples lifestyle-which i'm guessing you know nothing of

Guest's picture

"Way to generalize" was the best way describing how crappy this article really is.

Guest's picture

It's not necessarily calories. It's more about what's in the food. Today health is based on food exchange. As in counting food groups instead of calories. It all boils down to nutrition and that is why the new sight of poverty is over wheight.

Guest's picture

i know

Guest's picture

I think if you are poor many times you have found life hasn't gone your way and your stress level is higher. This makes you want to eat more of the wrong foods.It's harder to find pleasure in the sunshine and flowers. You want ice cream. I am poor and I eat well but I spend enormous amounts of time in the kitchen. Not everyone can do that.

Guest's picture
Bur Oak

It mostly comes down to what is best described as an external locus of control, combined with the accessibility only available from a prosperous and generous functional segment of society. Any dispute of the above or further excuse-making is a reflection of that external locus I mentioned.

Guest's picture

Most of the arguments make no sense to me.

It cannot possibly be ignorance of what is is healthy and what is not. Even the dumbest poor person knows that spinach is healthier than a big mac, but if you offered them a bunch of spinach or a big mac, costing the same amount, they'd pick the big mac.

Do you really think they'd pick the big mac because they're running calculations in their head to compare calories and judge the big mac to be a better deal because it has more calories? Of course not. In their mind, the big mac = delicious, and the bunch of spinach = not delicious.

And people don't need locally grown organic food to be pinnacles of health. There's not a damned thing wrong with frozen vegetables. Non-organic frozen vegetables are super cheap and super healthy.

I think poor people are fat because of choice. Not that they choose to be fat, but because they choose big macs, and mountain dew over spinach and water.

Guest's picture

I totally agree with this. I work in a grocery store as a clerk. I see so many people that are on assistance and they buy so many foods that are nothing but empty calories Almost always their whole purchase is refined processed food. I believe that most buy these foods one because that's what is cheap, but to go a step further I feel it is because of a lack of knowledge. So many people, and I mean a lot of people, have no idea how to cook. I do believe that we need to help the poor, people need to eat. But I also feel like we as a country are not doing the poor any favor by handing out money for food that they have no idea how to use. I feel like we need to educate people, I don't think a free lunch should be handed out without information, tools to help people build a better life. I think it should be a requirement. My family is not rich, not by any standard. We live on a income of about 36,000 a year, we are a family of 3. I buy what's on sale, I shop at discount stores like, Aldi and Dollar General. We raise a small garden in the summer. I freeze and can. When we have desert or a cookie, its homemade. I buy ingredients, not boxes. What I and many others do is not rocket science, anyone can learn how to do these things. I feel like providing this information is of the utmost importance, I feel the standard of how we live as a country and the nations health is on the line.

Guest's picture

Such ignorance. First of all, the poor person has to be taught nutrition in order to make good food choices. Second, she can't live in a 'food desert' in a city where she has to take a bus to the nearest grocery store that carries produce - that bus fare means that much less food. Third, and I am speaking from direct experience here, she can't live on an Indian reservation where the only stores are convenience stores, the nearest full grocery store is 70 miles away, and it's a normally severe winter and she doesn't have a working car so has to catch rides with a relative or friend going to town, whenever she can. Your recommendations are good, but they're still for the relatively well-off person who lives where healthy choices are readily available.

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