Fat and broke: People eat more processed, unhealthy food during a recession

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — With rising inflation, the United States is on the brink of another recession. While people may want to brace for high unemployment and businesses closing, a new study suggests another consequence may be a change to our diets. Researchers from Sacred Heart University found that people eat less protein and green vegetables and more sugar and fatty foods during a recession.

The change in diet affected more people in households where overall access to food is lower. Lower quality, ultra-processed foods are often much cheaper than healthier options for individuals.

“Overall, we found that the Great Recession had a negative impact on dietary behaviors in both adults and children,” explains Jacqueline Vernarelli, PhD, director of research education and associate professor of public health at Sacred Heart, in a media release. “This adds to a robust body of evidence that economic downturn impacts household income, employment status and subsequent household food security levels.”

While the study did not directly measure the COVID-19’s impact on diet, the researchers do suggest it is a relevant factor that affects today’s economy.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented increases in food insecurity, and a dramatic increased need for emergency food resources and other types of food assistance,” says Dr. Vernarelli. “By identifying key intake patterns during the previous recession, we can identify areas that may need intervention now and during the [pandemic] recovery years.”

Kids eat 200 more calories a day in a poor economy

The team collected data from over 60,000 adults and children living in the United States. They looked at people’s diet and household food security before, during, and after the Great Recession of 2007 to 2010.

Household food security was defined as every person in a household having enough food to live an active and healthy life. In contrast, food-insecure households have limited or uncertain access to enough healthy food. People with food insecurity have a higher chance for nutritional deficiencies and chronic diseases.

Results showed that the nutritional quality of food diminishes when families opt to buy cheaper foods in lieu of healthier options. Food-insecure households may have enough food to keep everyone full, but the variety and quality of their meals may go down. During the Great Recession, children living in houses with low food security ate more solid fat and sugar. Children ate 200 more calories per day than they did both before and after the recession.

“Using historical data to understand and anticipate potential nutrient needs and areas of concern may better help public health nutritionists serve communities faced with food insecurity, as well as help inform decisions related to food assistance policy,” comments Dr. Vernarelli.

Study authors add the results could shape policies which open access to nutritious foods in programs such as SNAP, WIC, and the National School Lunch Program.

The research team presented their findings at Nutrition 2022 Live Online.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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