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A Hunger Link in the Obesity Chain


A new study shows that people are more likely to crave high calorie, starchy foods after fasting — and two Leaders believe the findings are evidence of the strong link between food insecurity and obesity.

Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the study found that when given a choice, 75 percent of participants placed on an 18-hour fast started their post-fast meal with a starch such as french fries or a protein such as chicken, rather than with a vegetable. Those participants who did not fast started their meal with a veggie.

In commentary for the study, Leaders Amy Yaroch and Courtney Pinard of the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition argued that this could explain why people who are food insecure also are at higher risk for becoming obese — and provides proof we should work to tackle both issues together.

“I feel like, so many times people say, ‘Oh, people can’t be hungry and obese,’” Yaroch tells the Inside Track. “But there are reasons that both will occur… in my mind, [the study] confirms what I believed thus far, that we do have the coexistence.”

Yaroch points to another recent study that found one-third of homeless people in Boston were obese, while nearly two-thirds were overweight, and just 1.6 percent were underweight. “It comes down to the fact that these are both forms of malnutrition,” Yaroch says.

People who are food insecure lack easy access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Many face other challenges as well, like having little time or few resources to prepare healthy meals, or being exposed to lots of marketing for unhealthy foods and beverages.

But there’s also a bit of prehistoric history working as well, Yaroch notes.

“Our instincts as humans, way back when we were running away from… big animals that were chasing us, we used to eat a lot to store food,” Yaroch tells the Inside Track.

Although we don’t need to run from prehistoric predators any longer, the instinct to eat for survival still kicks in, especially when someone doesn’t know when or where their next meal will come from. People who skip a meal or eat infrequently are wired to eat to store food.

Only none of us are burning the same number of calories we were when we were running from predators. All of those factors contribute to obesity.

Because food insecurity and obesity are so strongly linked, they should be studied together, Yaroch argues. Too often, the issues are tackled on parallel tracks, with one group of researchers and advocates taking on hunger and another group looking for solutions to obesity.

Solutions to both are similar but admittedly complex, Yaroch says.

Healthy food needs to be more affordable and available, while unhealthy food should be more expensive and harder to access, she says. There’s already evidence this is happening, as more farmer’s markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds and things such as community gardens and mobile vegetable trucks pop up in low-income neighborhoods.

Education also is needed to show people how to craft healthy and affordable meals, she says.

“It’s not something that’s going to be solved through policy, through environment or through individual behaviors. I really think it needs to be all of those strategies.”

Click here to connect to Amy Yaroch.

Don't miss the rest of the Inside Track! Find out how a Wisconsin Leader is helping those at risk for food insecurity learn how to craft healthy, affordable meals. Plus: Get information about an upcoming webinar studying ways health advocates can collaborate online.