Poverty and Health: Obesity, Stress, Disease

By at December 11, 2010 | 4:59 pm | Print

Poverty and Health: Obesity, Stress, Disease

Effects of Poverty on Health written by Haylie Watson

“Less money means less nutritious food, less heat in winter, less fresh air in summer, less distance from sick people, less knowledge about illness or medicine, fewer doctor visits, fewer dental visits, less preventative care, and above all else, less first-quality medical attention when all these other deprivations take their toll and a poor person finds himself seriously ill” (Myth: The U.S. has the best).

Poverty is such a powerful force that it can catapult one into a long cycle of serious health problems. And breaking this cycle is a major task that can only be accomplished with steps such as informing the public of the effects poverty is having all across our country. There are three main ways that poverty can take its toll on an individual and their family. First is the effect it can have on stress and mental health. In 2006, a government site on minority health stated that adults living in poverty were four times more likely to have psychological problems than those with an income two times greater than the poverty level.

The second way that poverty can affect health is through obesity; this is especially a problem in the United States today, where “ more than 12 million children and adolescents are considered obese.”(A New Global Health Crisis). The third way that poverty cripples the lives of those affected is through infectious disease. Obesity, stress and mental health, and infectious disease spread at such a rapid rate particularly for those living in small and unsanitary conditions and they are the major ways that poverty can affect one’s health. It is important to be educated on these topics because so many people struggle with these realities every day.

Living in poverty heavily influences stress levels and mental health. Stressors include uncontrollable  situations, illness, financial status, social isolation, a lack of sleep, and work overload (Koenker, Hannah). When these are experienced over a long period of time, such as living in poverty- it can be very harmful in that it increases the likelihood of developing a disease, being obese, or experiencing a heart attack. It can often play out in depression and anti-social behaviors among children who have experienced poverty over a long period of time. One explanation for this is summed up by Families in Poverty when they said “Parents with low and unstable incomes experience more emotional distress, depression, and see themselves as less effective parents that do parents with higher incomes.” But it doesn’t just affect the children; the adults feel the distress as well. They are less nurturing parents, harsher discipline is more common and as a result, children grow up with less secure attachments (Families in Poverty). The constant worry of poverty can lead to depression and anxiety as well.


The stress of not knowing how bills will be payed or who will cover the medical costs if something happens to someone in the family and many other worries all contribute to things such as child abuse and neglect and parental conflict. This has such an effect that ”Abusive violence is more likely to occur in poor homes. Specific social and demographic characteristics increase the likelihood that poverty will lead to abuse. Poor young parents who are raising young children have an elevated risk of using the most abusive forms of violence toward their children, as do poor single mothers” (Families in Poverty). When stress hormones are released over a long period of time-for months or years- it drains the body’s energy and takes its toll on one’s emotional health.

Because of the strain of living in impoverished conditions, there is no surprise that this has such a big impact on the mental health and stability of families. But perhaps what is shocking is other ways that poverty can affect a family. And it is becoming more and more prevalent each year. The issue that has become an epidemic throughout America is the problem of obesity. A recently published report states that families with lower incomes had higher rates of obesity. More specifically: “…35.3 percent of adults earning less than $15,000 per year were obese compared with 24.5 percent of adults earning $50,000 or more per year”(F as in Fat).  This is especially alarming when you learn that “More than two-thirds of states have adult obesity rates above 25 percent. In 1991, no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent”(F as in Fat). Because these findings are so shocking, it would leave us wondering why people in poverty have such high obesity rates.

There are a few explanations such as the high cost of food compared to the “great deals” you can find on junk food. And sociologists have actually found that poor neighborhoods and areas with housing projects only have convenient stores as their grocery supply. These stores, of course do not offer fresh fruit and vegetables, or lean meat, or acceptable sources of whole grains. One site states “Food options in poor neighborhoods are severely limited: it’s a lot easier to find quarter waters and pork rinds on the corner than fresh fruits and vegetables. Low-income workers may also have less time to cook their own meals, less money to join sports clubs, and less opportunities to exercise outside (Engber, Daniel). Location of families plays a big role in their health because of the lack of good quality grocery stores in poor areas. If they do have access to grocery stores, the prices of healthy food soar way above fatty foods. And if they are poor they are going to get as much food as they can for their money and these cheap foods are loaded with fat, sugar, and empty calories. The combination of the burden of poverty linked to a poor diet leads to weight gain. This happens when your body responds to outside stressors by releasing excessive amounts of cortisol and adrenaline. The body creates extra glucose which leaves the body with excess energy that is stored as fat if it is not used. When large amounts of adrenaline are produced over and extended period of time, the fat cells don’t get converted into energy, which leads to an increase in weight (Whittle, Adrian).

Having access to these foods is what is causing the high rates of obesity all across our nation. Dr. Adam Drewnowski from the University Of Washington “determined that foods produced from subsidized crops, such as French fries and soda, cost about five times less per calorie comparison, Dr. Drewnowski says that from a short-term financial perspective, it may make sense for a low-income person to choose high-fat and highly sweetened foods over healthier alternatives” (Hawn, Daniel). The priorities of food pricing are taking its toll on our country.

Long-term effects of obesity linked to poverty will continue to threaten the health of Americans, as well as the crisis of rapid spreading infectious diseases. To best understand this, it is important to have an idea of how the immune system works. Our immune system protects us from disease by producing cells to fight off antigens. For our system to perform its best, we need T cells that produce antibodies to fight off disease under stress. Our body produces chemicals called catecholamines, which are dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. When these increase the immune system can become suppressed by inhibiting the growth of the cells that help fight off disease. (Koenker, Hannah) Sicknesses like tuberculosis, influenza, hepatitis, gonorrhea, and Chlamydia are on the rise and poor people are a target because of the constant burdening environment. The World Health Organization estimates that “between now and 2020 nearly one billion people will be newly infected, 150 million will develop the disease [tuberculosis] and 36 million will die.” These numbers could easily be translated for many infectious diseases. The Third World Network sums it up accurately by saying “Continuing global population growth, combined with rapid urbanization, means that many millions of city dwellers are forced to live in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, where lack of clean water and adequate sanitation provides breeding grounds for infectious disease”(A New Global Health Crisis).

Most poor families cannot afford the medicine and antibiotics they need to treat these diseases and they certainly cannot afford to visit the doctor. So what does this mean? These diseases continue to spread at a rapid rate until the living conditions and availability of healthcare for the poor are improved.

These findings are nothing short of disappointing, knowing that as America we will continue moving toward a bleak reality of unhealthy and overweight people, unless we as a nation come together to fight poverty and poor health. The complex link of health and poverty must continue to be examined until viable solutions can be formed. To be educated is the first step and next we can start coming up with practical solutions to stop this epidemic.

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  1. Short Term Health Effects | Home says:

    […] Effects of Poverty of Health | obesity, stress, disease … – Poverty increases health risks through increasing rates of obesity, levels of dangerous mental stress, and infectious disease. Poverty means poor medical care. […]


  1. diane, 5 years ago Reply

    true. many housing projects don’t have grocery stores within walking distance this is termed food deserts. and the morbidly obese are poorer. google morbidly obese poverty.

Leave a Reply → diane