Food insecurity-obesity paradox for women in Atlantic Canada

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Publication Date: 
Thu, 2012-12-06

By Jane Shulman

At first glance, it seems to be a contradiction. How could women who are experiencing food insecurity—women who don’t have consistent access to affordable, safe, nutritious food—be overweight or obese?

Researchers long believed that food insecurity was linked to being underweight, and it can be, but there is growing evidence that particularly for women who are “moderately food insecure” the opposite is also true. That’s because obesity isn’t simply about eating too much or choosing poor quality foods. For many women, it is also about poverty, social circumstance and lack of access to healthier food choices.

View the webinar
- Recorded December 7, 2012

To learn more about this seeming contradiction, researchers Andrea Papan and Babara Clow of the Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health conducted focus groups with 27 women in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island who self-identified as food insecure and were overweight or obese. The study investigated the links between moderate food insecurity, overweight/obesity and chronic disease for women in Atlantic Canada, especially those in marginalized and vulnerable populations.

The resulting report, The Food Insecurity-Obesity Paradox as a Vicious Cycle for Women: A Qualitative Study, offers a glimpse into the lives of some women living this paradox. The vicious cycle that participants described included "experiences of poverty, often in childhood and as adults; food insecurity and nutritional deprivation caused by an inability to purchase healthy foods; weight gain in the context of food insecurity eventually becoming obesity; ongoing and increasing stress due to factors such as lone parenting and social isolation; and chronic illness."

Key themes from focus groups 

Figure 4: Food Insecurity-Obesity Paradox as a Vicious Cycle for Women*
Five key themes emerged from the focus group discussions: 1) poverty; 2) gaining access to sufficient, nutritious, socially acceptable food; 3) linkages to food insecurity, obesity and chronic diseases; 4) gendered constructs of maternal deprivation: eating less and last; and, 5) experiences of social isolation, vulnerability, stress, and depression.

*Papan, A.S. & Clow,B. (2012: 28)

In the past quantitative research has been done with women who were food insecure and also overweight or obese, but Papan explains that the researchers wanted to work qualitatively—they wanted to hear women’s stories and find out more about their experiences.

“Researchers had investigated experiences of maternal deprivation and food insecurity of lone mothers in the region,” explains Papan. “We wanted to investigate further who was food insecure in our region and what weight challenges they were living with, and how did their weight affect other aspects of their health, especially around chronic diseases?”   

The participants shared stories of stress, stigma, resilience and coping strategies in order to have enough food for themselves and their families. Many women in the study reported having chronic disease and being faced with impossible choices related to the purchase of medication over food.  Papan and Clow explain: “Several participants framed their choices in terms of being between a ‘rock and a hard place,’ trying to choose between two options according to which was less likely to do immediate harm.”

The report features many participants’ voices. Reading about their experiences in their own words highlights the predicament these women are in, and also the stick-handling they do on a daily basis to try to make things work for themselves and their families.

“But the way it is right now, you don’t have enough money for food, and that’s the reason why a majority of the people have a lot of health problems. They’re sick, they’re stressed. They’re worrying because when you don’t have adequate food, and healthy and balanced food on the table for your family, then the stress, the illness sets in. And yes, the weight is up and down … not always the best meal, so then you gain all this weight and you start having all kinds of health problems. – Study participant

Papan recounts the story of a women who had $5 for food, so she bought 30 instant noodle packets at the dollar store so she would have a meal every day. “We heard from women that having an orange was a rare treat,” she adds.

In addition to mental health challenges, participants also talked about forms of resilience and the positive changes they were making, yet still feeling isolated.

“Well, people look down at me a lot too because I am younger and I do have, you know, three kids… And especially now, living in low income housing, you know. They’re like, you know, they don’t want anything to do with me. Like, I’m a terrible person or, you know. They’re not going waste their time on me. You know, without getting to know me or getting to know, like I am trying. I’m not just here for a free ride, right? I work my butt off. I go to school every day. I’m there for eight o’clock every morning. And I’m not late, you know (laughs), trying my hardest and they just, they don’t care.” – Study participant

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