Drs. Sturm & Datar connect higher healthy food costs with obesity
A new study released this week claims that children in certain poor neighborhoods where produce costs can be much higher are more likely to become obese because of the lack of resources to afford healthier food options such as fruits and vegetables rather than their proximity to fast food restaurants as was once believed.
The Santa Monica, California-based RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization that provides analysis and solutions to a variety of societal problems, found that school-aged children who reside in communities where fruits and vegetables are too expensive for them to purchase are much more likely to gain a lot more weight than their peers in other neighborhoods where fruits and vegetables are not as cost-prohibitive.
This RAND study was published in the current issue of the medical journal Public Health and is believed to be the very first such study of its kind that ties financial means for healthy food purchases to childhood obesity.
Led by RAND economist Dr. Roland Sturm and associate economist/public policy consultant Dr. Ashlesha Datar, the study observed the weight gain of 6,918 children from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds residing in 59 different cities across America from kindergarten through the third grade. The researchers simultaneously watched the average price of fruits and vegetables in those areas as a comparison.
According to the study results, every participating child gained weight from kindergarten through the third grade at a much more rapid pace than they should have. The children increased their weight by 29 pounds on average while most clinical growth charts call for a child to gain 22 pounds over that period of time.
Even still, the study found that children who lived in those areas where fruits and vegetables cost more money gained significantly more weight than the same aged children in areas where fruits and vegetables cost less money.
For example, the city of Mobile, Alabama, where fruits and vegetables were priced the highest, saw children gain 50 percent more weight above the norm than other children nationally while the city of Visalia, California, where fruits and vegetables were priced the lowest, saw children only gain about half the national average.
Dr. Sturm proclaims his study's findings may help health officials understand why childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed in the past two decades.
“During the same time period, prices of fruits and vegetables have increased faster than other food prices, and faster than the cost of living,” Sturm explained.
Interestingly, Dr. Sturm and his colleagues did not find any significant connection between excessive weight gain and the presence of fast food restaurants in those areas as has been theorized for many years.
"You see lots of stories about the poor becoming obese because they're in neighborhoods with lots of restaurants and no access to healthy food," he remarked. "We show that well, maybe those stories don't hold up."
Instead, Dr. Sturm believes his research shows childhood obesity may be a result of higher prices for healthy foods.
"This is the first study that considers the relationship between children's weight gain and the density of food establishments and the price of food across the nation,” Sturm said.
Quickly pointing out that the study does not definitively show whether prices caused changes in purchasing habits or not, Dr. Sturm said more research will need to be undertaken to confirm this theory.
Previous research conducted by RAND and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the cost of fruits and vegetables across the United States is low enough in most areas for even low-income families to provide good nutritional choices for their children. Nevertheless, they also discovered that low-income American households are twice as likely not to purchase any fruits and vegetables than higher-income families in any given week.
Some are already concerned that the results of this study will put pressure on lawmakers to provide government assistance to supplement the incomes of the families that cannot afford the higher costs of fruits and vegetables. But an economist from the USDA said a separate study they conducted showed there was no increase in spending on fruits and vegetables when financial assistance is given.
"There's this perception that fruits and vegetables are expensive when maybe it's not so much the cost, but the pleasure and taste that people get," said USDA economist Elizabeth Frazao. "If you have a dollar, would you rather buy apples, a candy bar or soda?"
But Dr. Sturm advocates free distribution of fruits and vegetables to children while they are attending public schools and this idea is already underway with pilot programs in about 100 schools nationwide to test the idea.
"If we were to roll this program out nationwide, it would cost $4.5 billion, which is not exactly small change," Strum said.
Some are even bringing up the idea of taxing unhealthy junk foods to discourage consumption.
So what about this study? Is poverty promoting pudginess like they want us to believe? If you live in a poor neighborhood, are you just predetermined to become obese? I'm not buying that theory.
The poor have always existed regardless of where you live and they didn't just magically appear over the past twenty years as obesity rates have soared. If the lack of availability of affordable fruits and vegetables was the problem, then why didn't we see this trend prior to the mid-1980s?
I would not consider myself poor, but I work three jobs to support my wife who has a lot of medical bills from a debilitating eye condition that is causing her to go blind. Balancing the checkbook every month is an adventure, but by the grace of God we have not missed one payment.
As a man who has been livin' la vida low-carb, I am constantly asked how I can afford to eat this way on a limited budget. I explain that while high-carb foods are certainly less expensive to buy, my health is much more important for me to make prudent choices that fit my financial means.
That translates into me buying hot dogs rather than steaks, peanuts instead of macadamia nuts, and sale-priced sugar-free candies in lieu of the $1-a-bar sugar-free chocolates. It's not easy, but you can make it fit within your budget if you try hard enough. Sure I could be saving a few pennies buying Ramen noodles, pasta and potatoes, but I know those foods would catapult my weight back up to 400+ pounds again. That's NEVER going to happen ever again!
The same goes for these poor neighborhoods where fruits and vegetables are more expensive. While they may not be able to afford as many of these healthy choices as other higher-income families, if it is important enough for them to get for their children then they will make it happen. Even with a government program (or should I say TAXPAYER-FUNDED -- i.e. YOU and ME! -- handout) providing assistance, the healthier options are still ignored.
Clearly this is not necessarily just an economic issue. These parents have made the choice that fruits and vegetables are just not important for their children to consume. If this is true, then why should the government (again, YOU and ME!) have to pay for these kids to get something their parents have no intention of ever buying their own children? Should we penalize the American people in the form of higher taxes for the bad decisions of parents who don't care if their kids eat healthy or not? I don't think we should.
Obesity is indeed a huge problem and childhood obesity should concern every man and woman who resides in this country. Our future generations are eating themselves to an early grave. We need to stop expecting the government to come up with counterfeit solutions and start taking personal responsibility for our own households for the weight problem that exists. Back off on the sugar, ease up on the excessive carbohydrates your family is consuming, and start a family exercise routine that is fun.
Coming up with ways to deal with obesity on an individual and family level should start with parents and guardians. Obesity will not go away on its own, but it is not inevitable as this recent study suggests. Enough with the excuses that healthy food costs too much. Stop lying to yourself and come to terms with the fact that you have a problem with your weight that needs to be addressed. If you want to lose weight bad enough, then you will find a way to eat the foods you need to eat and get your weight under control. If I could do it and shed 180+ pounds off of my body on a limited income, then so can you.
Now get out there and do it!