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Obesity linked to poverty and inequality

Posted:  Monday, March 28, 2016

Obesity has garnered a lot of public health attention in recent times, with scientists describing it as a growing epidemic. Diet and lifestyle choices are the chief contributing factors. However, new research from the University of St Andrews finds that there is more to obesity than just food and exercise. The research discovered that poverty and inequality can result in obesity and that there are psychological links between these socioeconomic conditions and eating patterns.

The two-portion research, published in the journal Appetite, provides the first evidence that poverty and inequality can drive increased food consumption. The researchers tested two hypotheses: that perceived poverty leads to eating more, and that inequality triggers anxiety, which in turn increases food intake.

The researchers initially collected background information on the participants' socioeconomic status (SES) as a measure of inequality. Participants were asked to describe how anxious they were that other people could look down on them or envy them or perceive them as inferior. They were then divided into two groups. One group was asked to read about the people in the UK who live in financial and material scarcity, and write a paragraph on how they resembled these people in order to make them feel poor. The second group was encouraged to read about people in the UK who live in financial and material abundance, and write a paragraph on how they were like these people as a way to make them feel affluent. All participants watched two short videos afterwards and ate chocolate and cheese crackers as snacks.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the group made to feel poor ate 54% more food than the group that was made to feel wealthy. In addition, participants who gave themselves a lower SES rating were anxious that others would look down on them, and this led to increased eating. Participants who gave themselves a higher SES rating worried that others would envy them, and this also triggered increased food consumption.

For the second part of the study, participants were divided into small groups and were told that they would be involved in a group discussion on personal finances. As in the first study, the researchers gathered background information on the participants’ family income and SES. Participants were given false feedback that they were poorer, wealthier, or similar to others. They were then asked to write about how they expected the discussion on personal finances to go.

The researchers found that those made to believe that they were unequal to their peers – either poorer or wealthier – were more anxious about the discussion and this led to increased eating, especially among those who craved for acceptance by their peers. As in the first study, perceived poverty also increased the quantity of food eaten.

Explaining the study findings, Dr Bratanova, a lecturer in Management at the University of St Andrews said, "Feeling poor and feeling unequal can simultaneously influence eating behaviour, pushing people to approach high calorie food and consume larger amounts of it. It appears that humans and animals respond similarly to harsh and scarce environments, and this response takes the form of pre-emptive increase in food consumption. Inequality, on the other hand, evokes a sense of anxiety, and this is true both for the disadvantaged and for the advantaged. The disadvantaged are worried that others will look down on them and see them as inferior; the advantaged are worried that others may envy them and challenge their privileged position. "This social anxiety in turn pushes people to consume larger amounts of food high in sugar and fat as a way to soothe their emotions. Addressing the root causes – poverty and inequality – would be the ultimate solution to the obesity crisis."

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