ISU study finds 'food insecurity' is not a cause of overweight low-income children

AMES, Iowa -- A recent study by the American Medical Association found that approximately one in five children and adolescents in the United States are overweight. And food insecurity -- a situation in which an individual cannot access enough food, for a variety of reasons, to sustain active, healthy living -- has been identified by some researchers as a possible contributing factor.

Previous studies on food insecurity -- which is understandably closely linked to poverty -- have been inconclusive on its relationship to childhood obesity. But an Iowa State University study uses a new approach to demonstrate that food insecurity is not associated with children from low-income households becoming overweight.

The team of five ISU researchers drew their conclusion by using data that was collected for the Three-City Study in 1999. Their sample included 1,031 children (498 boys, 533 girls), ages 10-15, living in low-income households in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio. The ISU researchers have published their findings in a paper titled "Lack of Association between Child-Specific Food Insecurity and Overweight in a Sample of 10-15 Year Old Low Income Youth," which will appear in the February issue of the Journal of Nutrition.

The ISU study is the first to use child-specific information to analyze the link between food insecurity and weight status of children living in low-income households. Previous research studied food insecurity and children on the household level.

"We should still be concerned that there are a large number of children who are food insecure and overweight," said Craig Gundersen, an associate professor of human development and family studies, who was lead author on the study. "But what we've found is, controlling for other factors, food insecurity does not lead to a child being overweight."

In addition to Gundersen, ISU authors included Brenda Lohman, assistant professor of human development and family studies; Steven Garasky, associate professor of human development and family studies; Susan Stewart, associate professor of sociology; and Joey Eisenmann -- formerly an Iowa State assistant professor of kinesiology who is now on the faculty at Michigan State University.

Using the child's weight and height, the ISU researchers classified children as overweight or at risk for being overweight. Food insecurity was assessed by a mother's response to questions concerning whether, within the last year, she had reduced the size of a meal for the child due to lack of food or money, if her child had been hungry because she could not afford more food, and if her child had skipped a meal because food was not available.

Within their sample, the researchers found a high prevalence (50 percent) of children at risk of being overweight in this population, and that 7.7 percent of the children were food insecure.

"What we're saying is there's not a trade-off. People who are food secure are not more likely to be overweight, and vice versa," said Gundersen. "So, alleviating food insecurity should have no influence on childhood overweight status."

Gunderson reports that the ISU team will continue their research on contributing factors to childhood obesity, looking at the role of stress.

"Most of the research on children's obesity comes from the medical community," said Stewart, a member of the ISU research team. "But if you look at the family, you see a lot of important things going on there which have the potential to affect childhood obesity rates -- like stress in the home and the influence of parents. The point is that family life has a lot to do with children's lives, particularly when it comes to overeating and obesity. That's where we as social scientists can make our contributions to this research."

Stewart was lead author on a study this summer that was the first to show that children, including those who are from low-income, single-mother families, actually eat slightly healthier when they spend time with their non-resident fathers than when they're not with them. It suggests the concept of the "fast food dads" is just a myth.

The food insecurity research was supported by a National Research Initiative grant from the USDA, Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service.