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Does the Food Stamp Program cause obesity?

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 11-Aug-2009

A study has found that Food Stamp participants are more likely to be obese that those not on the program, suggesting that changes need to be made in order to encourage better food choices, the authors claim.

The Food Stamp Program (FSP) – recently renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – is available to households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty line. It is used by 28m Americans each month, and the program forms the largest part of the USDA’s budget. The average recipient receives about $80 a month in food stamp coupons, according to the report.

Its results, published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, show that the average American woman, who is 5ft4in tall, or 1.63m, will be 5.8 pounds (2.6kg) heavier if she is on the program than someone of the same socioeconomic background who is not. This amounts to more than one unit as measured by body mass index (BMI), a widely recognized indicator measure of healthy weight.

Change the focus

“While this association does not prove that the Food Stamp Program causes weight gain, it does suggest that program changes to encourage the consumption of high-nutrient, low-calorie foods should be considered,” the authors wrote.

Previous research has shown that this higher BMI is more likely for women, and especially those on the lowest incomes. Additionally, these new results show a larger association between FSP participation and BMI among white women than black women.

The researchers have a number of theories as to the reason for their findings, including the idea that increased income, either from cash or food stamp coupons, will increase food spending in general.

“However, the estimates indicate that food demand is inelastic and increased food spending does not necessarily mean increased caloric intake. Even so, the program could still contribute to weight gain since people tend to over consume products that are free,” they wrote.

They also hypothesize that the monthly benefits payment cycle could lead to binge eating; or that “food stamp participation might harm mental health, perhaps causing depression or reducing self-efficacy, which in turn can lead to eating disorders and reduced physical activity.”

In terms of addressing the issue, the authors suggest that because it is possible for higher income to lead to increased spending on low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods, price changes to both low-calorie and calorie-dense foods could be helpful.

They also suggest making a course in nutrition a requirement of the Food Stamp Program.

More than one in three Americans is obese, and obesity-related diseases such as hypertension and diabetes cost over $200bn a year, half of which is covered by the taxpayer through Medicaid and Medicare.

The Food Stamp Program was initially devised to increase energy intake amongst the poor and to consume surplus farm commodities.

Source: Economics and Human Biology

Vol. 7 (2009) pp. 246–258

Does the U.S. Food Stamp Program contribute to adult weight gain?

Authors: J. Zagorsky, P. Smith

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