Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Most Weight Gain Comes from Stress, Scientists Say

February 20th, 2013 at 12:08 pm by timigustafson

People get fat from eating too much and exercising too little. At least that’s the most widely held explanation for the growing obesity crisis around the world. But it’s not that simple, says Dr. Achim Peters, a professor of neurology at the University of Lübeck in Germany and author of “The Selfish Brain – Why Our Brain Sabotages Dieting and Resists the Body” (Ullstein, 2011).

The worldwide obesity epidemic is in truth a stress epidemic, and unhealthy weight gain is just one of the ills that plague an increasingly stressed population trying to cope with the ever-growing demands of modern life, he says in an interview with the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” (2/9/2013).

In reality, weight issues are often rooted in socio-economic difficulties like job loss, poverty, rising food prices and other existential uncertainties, he says. It puts tremendous pressure on people. Stress-producing situations can be immensely damaging to our health, especially when they persist over long periods of time with no reprieve in sight.

Dr. Peters is best known for the “Selfish Brain Theory,” which he developed together with an interdisciplinary team of scientists over a decade ago when researching the origins of obesity. In essence, the theory describes how the brain takes care of its own needs first when regulating energy distribution throughout the body. It is “selfish” in the sense that it always wins out in any competition for energy resources, at the expense of all other organs if necessary.

In times of stress, the brain spends particularly high amounts of energy, which requires an increase in food intake. During acute stress situations, a rapid spike in energy demand is natural and not harmful. It is different when stress is prolonged. Then it can become a chronic state and as such quite dangerous.

To shed some light on these dynamics, it is important to understand our body’s hormonal responses to stress. Energy in the body is regulated and mobilized by a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol selects the right type and amount of energy to meet the body’s demands when responding to a particular situation. Cortisol is also responsible for mobilizing energy by tapping into the body’s fat stores and moving it to where it’s most needed, primarily in the brain.

Studies in animals and humans have shown that heightened secretion of cortisol is associated with increased appetite, especially for sugar. In cases of enduring stress, this can stimulate food consumption to the point of overeating with all the detrimental consequences we are so familiar with. Moreover, too much cortisol can slow the metabolism, causing more weight gain than would normally occur. It can also affect fat distribution. Fat in the stomach area is considered a greater health risk than when it’s stored around the hips and thighs.

Ultimately, we will not be able to address the obesity crisis effectively if we continue to ignore the effects of chronic stress on our hormonal system, says Dr. Peters. Asking people to diet and force themselves to lose weight through deprivation can only make things worse. The solution is to de-stress our lives. This doesn’t mean more yoga and meditating, although that can help too, but mostly better socio-economic security and, as a result, peace of mind for more people.

As a point in case he cites a study conducted by the University of Chicago that compared two groups of single mothers from low-income neighborhoods. One group of women was moved to a more upscale area with safer streets, greater job opportunities and better schools, the other was left in place. Within a few years, most of the women who had moved away showed considerable improvement in their health, especially in reduction of diabetes and obesity. As their stress lessened, their well-being increased on every level.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading Can’t Lose Weight? t Could Be Stress

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Subsidized School Lunches Save More Children from Malnutrition and Hunger

December 5th, 2011 at 1:06 pm by timigustafson

The number of schoolchildren receiving free or subsidized meals is skyrocketing. Many come from families that until recently counted themselves as solidly middle-class. As the economy continues to sputter, the youngest members of society often suffer the greatest hardships.

The latest data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show an increase of students qualifying for free or low-cost school lunches to 21 million (up from 18 million in 2007), a 17 percent rise. In some states, it is closer to 25 percent. The USDA, which administers the national school lunch program, reported that not since 1972 have so many children become eligible in such a short time.

Since its inception in 1946, the school lunch program has steadily expanded and has now a $10.8 billion annual budget, providing 32 million meals every day, 21 million of which are free or subsidized. Children from families of four with annual incomes of under $30K qualify for free meals, while subsidies are available to those from households with less than $42K.

Because of the increasing need, some school districts have added free breakfast- and even supper programs to prevent children from going hungry. But in most places funds are too limited to meet the demand.

These statistics reflect nothing less than a rapidly growing national crisis. The fact that millions and millions of children are dependant on government aid for food is a grave matter. The notoriously poor nutritional quality of many school lunches is lamentable enough. But what happens when children are not in school during vacation times with no access to regular meals? What happens to children who are continuously malnourished, missing out on key nutrients essential for their healthy growth and development?

Young children are most vulnerable to the effects of malnutrition. During growth spurts they need large amounts of calories, protein, fat, vitamins and other nutrients. The optimal development of the brain, the nervous system, musculature, bones and inner organs all depend on a healthy, balanced diet. Children are also more vulnerable to pollutants, toxins and chemicals than adults. Nutritionally inferior food products can be quite harmful to them.

Ideally, all children should be given the necessary means to grow up to their full potential. A healthy start can make that all the more possible. But that’s not what’s happening today for so many youngsters. Instead, childhood obesity is reaching crisis level. Often it’s the poorest kids who suffer from weight problems, not because they overeat, but because the junk food their parents can afford to buy them makes them sick. Only access to good nutrition at home and in schools could turn the tide.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, America is no longer the land of plenty we took for granted just a short while ago, certainly not for all, perhaps not for most. The question is what we are going to do about it. We can’t simply ignore the fact that millions of children in our midst don’t have enough or the right kind of food to eat. The damage that is being done to their health at a young age will continue to hold them back for the rest of their lives. We cannot ignore the dire consequences this will have for us all. A society full of sick people is not viable. Nothing less than the country’s future is at stake.

Asking to invest more money in the school lunch program to expand its services and improve its quality is not easy at a time when budget cuts and austerity measures are all the talk in Washington. But this is an emergency situation and we have to get our priorities straight. Americans have always pulled together when the country’s security was threatened. This is one these moments.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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As Income Declines, So Does Health

September 19th, 2011 at 4:40 pm by timigustafson

The number of Americans living below the official poverty line has increased to 46.2 million, according to just released statistics by the Census Bureau. It is a record in the 52 years the bureau has surveyed poverty in the United States.

The median household income fell nationally last year back to the levels of 1997. It is the first time since the Great Depression that Americans earned less, adjusted for inflation, than they did over a decade ago.

Predictably, minorities were hit the hardest, with poverty rates twice as high as those of non-Hispanic whites. Southern states had the highest amount of people falling into poverty – almost double the rate of the Northeast, Midwest and West.

The poverty threshold is an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four and $11,344 for a single person.

“This is truly a lost decade,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard University. “We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”

As income declined, the number of people without health insurance coverage rose. Nearly 50 million are now uninsured, almost a million more since 2009. For many working-age Americans, job loss and long-term unemployment lead to loss of employer-provided health insurance or affordable alternatives. And those who are working often struggle to maintain their coverage. In 2010, approximately 55 percent of working Americans were insured by their employers, a 10 percent decrease from 2000, according to the census report.

Studies on the causes of poverty have shown that there are three important components that hold together the social safety net for most people: Income, health and relationships. If one of these fails, the other two are usually still able to bridge the gap, at least for some time. However, if two out of three are diminished, the chances for falling into poverty and even homelessness rise sharply. In other words, if you lose your job but are healthy and have a stable marriage or partnership (especially if there is a second income in a household), you are much better equipped to get through the ordeal of temporary unemployment than if you are sick and/or on your own. That may sound like a no-brainer, but it is exactly the kind of situation that most poor people are dealing with.

The harsh realities of poverty affect the youngest members of society even more. 22 percent of children and adolescents under 18 are now considered poor. Hunger or what is called in bureaucratic terms, “food insecurity,” affects 15 million kids in this country today. Considering the importance of healthy nutrition for normal physical and mental development at a young age, there is a whole generation that is being lost in front of our eyes.

Nutrition-related diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, are most common among the poor. With healthy foods out of reach because of high prices and lack of outlets in low-income neighborhoods, poor families have little choice but to survive on junk food.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has recently published a report on “Health Disparities in Life Expectancy and Death,” documenting current health disparities in New York City based on differences in race, ethnicity and economics. Other factors included in the study were social and physical environmental conditions, opportunities, stressors that impact health, access to primary and preventive health care and quality of health care received.

Trying to identify how poverty and health are interrelated, the researchers wrote: “Living in poverty makes it difficult to know about, find or access a variety of resources that promote health and prevent illness. For example, people living in poor neighborhoods may have access to fewer opportunities to exercise and buy healthy food. Living with limited resources also increases stress and anxiety, which can, in turn, lead to unhealthy habits, like smoking and drug use. In the other direction, poor health can prevent people from completing their education and obtaining well-paying jobs, which can lead to subsequent poverty.”

In other words, the decline of income, social safety and health are all part of the same vicious cycle. To break it, the Health Department makes a number of recommendations, including setting up “health policies that benefit vulnerable populations,” directing “resources to target communities disproportionately affected by illness and premature death,” and implementing “policies that reduce economic and social disadvantages.”

In the meantime, the White House and Congress continue debating how to cut hundreds of billions of dollars more from entitlements and aid programs. I guess the statistics are not scary enough just yet.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Malnutrition During Childhood Can Cause Lifelong Health Problems

August 26th, 2011 at 5:28 pm by timigustafson

Pediatricians in almost every part of the country report seeing undernourished children in greater numbers than at any time in recent memory. More and more parents who have fallen on hard times due to the ongoing economic downturn are unable to afford enough food to give to their kids. Entire families subsist on junk food and go hungry for several days each month, according to a survey conducted by researchers at Boston Medical Center (BMC).

“Before the economy soured in 2007, 12 percent of youngsters age 3 and under whose families were randomly surveyed in the hospital’s emergency department were significantly underweight. In 2010, that percentage jumped to 18 percent, and the tide does not appear to be abating,” said Dr. Megan Sandel, professor of pediatrics and public health at BMC and investigator with Children’s Health Watch, a network of researchers who track children’s health in the U.S. “Food is costing more and dollars don’t stretch as far. It’s hard to maintain a diet that is healthy,” she added.

Doctors at hospitals in Baltimore, Little Rock, Minneapolis and Philadelphia also reported dramatic increases in the ranks of malnourished kids that show up in their emergency rooms with nutrition-related health problems.

Nearly 40 million people, including 14 million children, are currently facing hunger or the risk of hunger in America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s surveys on domestic food security. 3.5 percent of American households experience hunger on a regular basis, meaning that families are forced to skip meals and go without food for entire days. Three million children live under these severe conditions. Another eight percent of households are affected by chronic food insecurity, which means they are periodically at risk of hunger, eat low-quality diets and depend heavily on outside help, such as food stamps and food banks. 10.5 million children live currently in this kind of situation.

When children experience hunger, even temporarily, it is a much more serious problem than when adults suffer from shortages. A lot of irreversible damage can be done when growing kids are deprived of essential nutrients. A recently published study on the exposure to famine and under-nutrition during childhood and adolescence found that serious health problems persist throughout adulthood among those who were exposed to malnutrition early in life. The study, which was conducted by researchers from the University Medical Centre Utrecht and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and published in the European Heart Journal, found “direct evidence that acute under-nutrition during childhood has an important impact on future health.”

For the study, the researchers investigated the medical history of almost 8,000 women who lived as children, teenagers or young adults during the so-called “Dutch famine” right at the end of World War II. “The Dutch famine of 1944 to 1945 is a ‘natural experiment’ in history, which gave us the unique possibility to study the long-term effects of acute under-nutrition during childhood,” wrote Dr. Annet van Abeelen from Utrecht, one of the lead authors of the study report. “Our findings suggest that a relatively short period of severe under-nutrition is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease in adult life, in a dose-dependent manner,” she added.

The women who were between 10 and 17 years old at the start of the famine, and who had been severely exposed to food shortages, were found to have a 38 percent higher risk of developing heart disease later in life, compared to others who were only moderately or not at all affected.

“The contemporary relevance of our findings is that famine and under-nutrition are still a major problem worldwide,” Dr. Abeelen wrote.

Depending on a child’s age, malnutrition can be extremely harmful both mentally and physically. Symptoms of nutritional deficiencies can include poor (stunted) growth of the brain and vital organs, mental retardation, muscle weakness, compromised immune system, fragile bone structure (rickets, osteoporosis), decaying teeth, delayed growth spurts and puberty, delayed menstrual cycle for young girls, and many chronic conditions, like asthma, anemia and pneumonia. A vast array of illnesses that develop later in life, like diabetes, heart disease and failure of key organs to function properly, can also be traced back to poor nutrition during childhood.

In other words, from a perspective of public health, the myriad effects of poverty and hunger on today’s children will stay with us for a very long time, possibly for a generation. Even proponents of austerity programs to reduce the national deficit acknowledge that cutting back on government spending on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society will make the current situation only worse. For the millions who already struggle to survive, shrinking the economy further is a recipe for disaster. In the end, we all will pay the price in terms of higher health care costs – just to keep a significant part of the population alive.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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