Obesity and hunger often go hand in hand, Hopkins bioethicist writes

U.S. must do more to address issues of food insecurity, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor Jessica Fanzo says

Obesity isn't a problem of overabundance. In fact in many cases, obesity and hunger go hand in hand—and both are rooted in poverty, writes bioethicist Jessica Fanzo.

A Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of global food and agriculture ethics and policy at Johns Hopkins, Fanzo is an expert in food systems and how agriculture, environment, and climate affect human health and nutrition. In an op-ed for Bloomberg, Fanzo notes that roughly 40 million Americans are considered food insecure, meaning they have difficulty buying enough safe and nutritious food to meet their household needs.

"Many of the same people who struggle with extra weight also regularly go to bed hungry."

The problem of food insecurity has been linked with obesity, and "many of the same people who struggle with extra weight also regularly go to bed hungry," Fanzo says. Food insecure people are 32% more likely than others to be obese, and children in households with food insecurity—numbering about 540,000 in the U.S.—are more likely to be overweight or obese.

The problem stems from the fact that the calorie-dense food these families can afford often lacks the nutrients needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle, Fanzo says. As a result, "though they may follow a nutritious diet for short periods, these are punctuated by cycles of financial and personal stress that lead to food deprivation, overeating, limited access to health care, reduced opportunities for physical activity, and greater exposure to unhealthy food environments."

She outlines a series of actions to remedy the urgent health problem, including:

  • Increasing government funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP
  • Shifting agriculture subsidies to focus on the farming of nutrient-dense crops such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes
  • Providing fresh foods at food banks instead of processed foods high in salt, sugar, and fat
  • Incentivizing physical activity by developing employer programs for health and wellness
  • Launching so-called prescription food programs, in which health providers write prescriptions that can be redeemed for nutrient-rich food at nearby grocery stores

"Fighting against obesity and hunger is a matter of fighting for basic food security—even here in the U.S.," Fanzo writes.

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