Relationship Between Hunger and Overweight or Obesity

While it may seem counterintuitive, hunger and obesity can coexist in the same individual, family, or community.  The research on whether there is a relationship, however, provides mixed results. A number of research studies in the U.S. and abroad have found positive associations between food insecurity and overweight or obesity (IOM, 2011b; Larson & Story, 2011).  Other studies have found no relationship, or even a lower risk of obesity, with food insecurity (Gundersen et al., 2009; Jones & Frongillo, 2007; Rose & Bodor, 2006).

Overall, the strongest and most consistent evidence is for a higher risk of overweight or obesity among food insecure women (Dinour, et al., 2007; Franklin et al., 2011; Larson & Story, 2011). Although the research for children is not as consistent as it is for women, several studies do find a significant association between food insecurity and overweight or obesity among children and adolescents (Eisenmann et al., 2011; Franklin et al., 2011; Townsend & Melgar-Quinonez, 2003).

A selection of U.S. studies showing a relationship between food insecurity and a greater risk of overweight or obesity is provided below. The vast majority of these studies control for socioeconomic factors (e.g., income, education) as well as demographic characteristics (e.g., age, gender, race-ethnicity).  Explanations for this relationship are available in the section on Why Low-Income and Food Insecure People are Vulnerable to Overweight and Obesity.

Research Showing Food Insecure Adults are More Likely to be Overweight or Obese

  • Based on a national sample of 4,509 women, those women who were food insecure were more likely to be overweight than women who were food secure (Townsend et al., 2001).
  • A study of more than 5,200 women from across the U.S. found that women living in food insufficient households had higher rates of overweight than those in food sufficient households (Basiotis & Lino, 2002).
  • Another study using national data from 9,698 adults found that women experiencing intermediate levels of food insecurity were more likely to be obese and more likely to have gained five pounds in the previous year than fully food secure women (Wilde & Peterman, 2006).  Similar but smaller effects were seen for men.
  • In a study of 810 pregnant women in North Carolina with incomes less than or equal to 400 percent of the income/poverty ratio, living in a food insecure household was associated with being severely obese before pregnancy and with experiencing greater weight gain during pregnancy (Laraia et al., 2010).
  • In a 12-state study of 66,553 adults, those who were food insecure had 32 percent greater odds of being obese compared with those who were food secure (Pan et al., 2012). Obesity was significantly associated with food insecurity among the following five population sub-groups: women (and not men); those with some college education or who graduated from college; and those with no children or two children in the household.
  • Food insecurity was associated with increased body mass index (BMI) among young women, but not young men, in a national study of more than 13,700 participants 24 to 32 years of age (Gooding et al., 2011).
  • Based on a study of 8,169 women in California, food insecure women were at greater risk of obesity than food secure women, with the greatest risk for non-White women (Adams et al., 2003).
  • Food insecure adults in one Connecticut study of 200 people were twice as likely to be obese as those who were food secure (Martin & Ferris, 2007).
  • Obesity and weight-related physical disability were both associated with food insecurity among a sample of 621 older adults in Georgia (Brewer et al., 2010).

Research Showing Food Insecure Children are More Likely to be Overweight or Obese

  • A study using national data from almost 6,500 children found that food insecurity was positively associated with overweight and obesity in those 12-19 years of age (Townsend & Melgar-Quinonez, 2003).
  • In a national sample of almost 7,000 children, childhood food insecurity was associated with overweight even after controlling for age, race, gender, and family poverty index (Casey et al., 2006).
  • A three-city study (Boston, San Antonio, and Chicago) of 1,011 adolescents found that maternal stress in combination with adolescent food insecurity significantly increased an adolescent’s probability of being overweight or obese (Lohman et al., 2009).
  • Rates of overweight and obesity were higher than the national average among homeless Minnesotan youth, many of whom reported some degree of food insecurity (Smith & Richards, 2008).
  • One study using a national sample of 8,693 infants and toddlers found an indirect association between food insecurity and overweight that operated through parenting practices and infant feeding practices (Bronte-Tinkew et al., 2007).
  • Among 2- to 5-year-old girls – but not boys – in Massachusetts participating in WIC, those from food insecure households with hunger had 47 percent higher odds of being obese compared to those from food secure households (Metallinos-Katsaras et al., 2009). Another study of the Massachusetts WIC preschool population concluded that persistent household food insecurity without hunger was associated with 22 percent greater odds of child obesity compared to those who were persistently food secure, but the odds varied depending on maternal pre-pregnancy weight status (Metallinos-Katsaras et al., 2012).