Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Stomaching the recession

Julie Flaherty's lively article on food consumption during recessionary times is currently the lead feature on the Tufts website. It draws on conversations with Friedman School Professor Jeanne Goldberg and myself. Flaherty explores whether one would expect people to eat more or less healthy food during an economic contraction:
If we look to history for clues as to what size jeans we will be wearing in 2011, our past recessions serve as imperfect precedents. The Great Depression may be the closest equivalent to the current economic crisis, but the nutritional landscape was very different then. "There were no televisions; levels of restaurant consumption were vastly lower; processed food consumption was much lower; and levels of physical activity were higher, especially among lower-income people," says Parke Wilde, Ph.D., a food economist and an associate professor at the Friedman School.

A better comparison may be 1982, when joblessness reached a high of 10.8 percent. People didn’t slow their food spending (it increased by 5 percent), and in fact, new-fangled "health foods," including low-fat and low-sodium products, did quite well. But at the time, the percentage of obese adults was only 15 percent. It is now closer to 34 percent.

"Something has happened in the last 30 years that the whole middle of the distribution has shifted in weight upwards," Wilde says. "And so you really need to look at things that are characteristic of the last 30 years."

One thing we’ve discovered during that time is that hunger has a relationship to obesity. In 2006, Wilde and Friedman School doctoral student Jerusha Peterman, N11, published a study showing that women who have difficulty putting food on the table every day are 58 to 76 percent more likely than other women to be obese or gain weight over time. Other studies have drawn similar conclusions. One found that toddlers whose families have gone hungry are three to four times as likely to be obese.

The reasons behind this nutritional paradox are unclear, but it is no secret that junk foods filled with calories, refined grains and sugars are a cheap and easy way to fill up. This has spurred Wilde to get to the bottom of a question that has plagued public health officials and shoppers alike: Does it simply cost too much to eat a healthy diet?

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