Hunger and food insecurity have been called America’s “hidden crisis.” At the same time,
and apparently paradoxically, obesity has been declared an epidemic. Both obesity and
hunger (and, more broadly, food insecurity) are serious public health problems, sometimes
co-existing in the same families and the same individuals. Their existence sounds
contradictory, but those with insufficient resources to purchase adequate food can still be
overweight, for reasons that researchers now are beginning to understand.
and the public need to better grasp this apparent paradox if our nation is to grapple with
these parallel threats to the well-being of many children and adults, and avoid potentially
damaging policy prescriptions arising from a mistaken belief that food insecurity and obesity
EOPLE IN THE
Hunger and food insecurity (see text box for definitions)
affect more than 30 million people each year,
according to national studies carried out by the Census
Bureau and the US Department of Agriculture.
income households are much more likely than others to
suffer from hunger and food insecurity since they have
fewer resources to buy food.
Simply stated, obesity results when energy intake
however, provides little insight into the important social
consumption or lower energy expenditures. These
causes include energy-dense high-fat foods and larger
portion sizes, for example, and lower levels of physical
activity (at work, schools, home, and elsewhere).
Food insecurity occurs whenever the
availability of nutritionally adequate
and safe food, or the ability to
acquire acceptable foods in socially
acceptable ways, is limited or
Hunger is defined as the uneasy or
painful sensation caused by a
recurrent or involuntary lack of food
and is a potential, although not
necessary, consequence of food
insecurity. Over time, hunger may
result in malnutrition.
Food insufficiency refers to an
inadequate amount of food intake
due to lack of resources.
Overall, the American population is growing more obese.
Some low-income populations are
While the degree to which social, cultural, environmental, and genetic
factors have contributed to the increase in obesity is not precisely known, we do know much
that can help explain how low-income, food-insecure Americans can be overweight.
While most Americans are affected by the social and environmental causes of higher energy
consumption or lower energy expenditures previously described, many households face the
additional burdens of low incomes, which often leave them insufficient money to buy food.
Through recent research, scholars now are gaining a better understanding of how food