The relationship between poverty and weight is a vital yet often downplayed aspect of the "obesity epidemic." Poor people have less nutritious food in their neighborhood stores (if they have stores at all), less money to buy it, less time to cook it, and less access to preventive medical care. But the fact that lower-income Americans tend to be fatter is more often trotted out to malign individuals—to imply that poor people (and fat people) are lazy, stupid, unmotivated, gross—than to shine light on the structural problems that perpetuate their victimization. "Fat" is just a body shape. Systemic poverty is a problem.
A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine highlights yet another factor in the link between poverty and body size: the fact that poorer Americans are less likely to employ "proven weight-loss strategies" such as moderate, long-term diet changes and regular exercise routines, and are more likely to look for "quick fixes" like diet pills and skipping meals.
It might be that the stressful lives of poor people make sticking to a diet and exercise plan more difficult. It's hard to exercise when you live in an unsafe neighborhood. Stress leads to emotional eating. You can't plan for gym time when you only know your work schedule three days in advance.
An emerging body of research helps explain how the stress of poverty hampers the decision-making process. A study in Science last year found that poverty equates to a mental burden similar to losing 13 IQ points. Another study just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who experienced economic uncertainty gave up on solving a difficult puzzle faster.
As Maria Konnikova wrote in the New York Times, living an unpredictable, erratic life can erode self-control: "If we're not quite sure when the train will get there, why invest precious time in continuing to wait?"
Often, low-income people aren't sure what tomorrow will bring. So why waste time trying to diet?
Yes, it's almost as though working multiple minimum-wage jobs on unpredictable schedules and trying to feed kids and keep the lights on while living below the poverty line makes it difficult to afford gym memberships, pilates classes, and a couple of spare hours per day for a nice jog through your park-less, decaying neighborhood.
And it's almost as though the diet industry exploits our culture's ubiquitous obsession with "perfect" bodies to shame and guilt the most vulnerable Americans into spending money they don't have on an often dangerous non-solution to a systemic problem they've been taught is a personal moral failing.
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