Low Income Food Insecurity Fuels Food Behaviors

The HealthGal Health Guide
  • Growing up in my family meant sitting at the dinner table with the expectation that you would clean your plate.  Why? Because money was tight and there were “starving children in Biafra, Africa,” according to my mother and some very important magazine publications.  I remember one evening when I just didn't want to finish my dinner.  My mother pulled out that week’s Time magazine to show me the cover photo of a starving child, whose stomach had swelled becuause of severe starvation and malnutrition.  That deteriorative state would ultimately lead to death, if no medical intervention occurred.  My mother wanted to be sure I got the message, and got with the program, and finished my precious dinner meal.  So I grew up conditioned with clean plate syndrome.  On the other hand my mom, who battled weight issues her entire life, would make comments when I would take second helpings at family gatherings or holiday meals.  She would criticize my appetite, which was frankly spurred by the sudden abundance of food plus the message to finish everything.  I would be told in front of others to stop eating so much.  Talk about mixed messages.

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    A new study suggests that low income mothers, in the Latina community for example, who are struggling to make sure there is enough food for their family to eat, may be sending conflicting messages to their kids.  It’s called food insecurity and it means not knowing when the next meal or feeding will happen.  So when there is food readily available, you tend to push those you are feeding to eat and eat and eat some more.  When there’s limited food you may instead tell them to slow down and not eat too much, or to simply take a smaller portion.  When available food quantities are small, you may even suggest to kids that they really are not that hungry – despite the fact that they really are very hungry.  These are very mixed messages and can confuse hunger and satiation perceptions, especially in kids.


    Experts already acknowledge that young Latinos are at risk of becoming obese based on escalating rates between 1994 and 2008, and food insecurity may be a strong and recent contributory factor.  A study published in the journal, Pediatrics  examined feeding styles, practices, perceptions and attitudes about children’s weights in the Latin community.  The study specifically involved 201 low income mothers and their babies, and about 85% of the participants were of Latin origin.  The intent was to look at the study parameters from the perspective of moms who had no worries about food availability, and moms who consistently worried about food.  All participants received assistance from the federal government’s WIC program.  The program helps low income participating families feel like they have a lifeline to food, but many still struggle with the impact of serious financial constraints.  The study found that moms who had persistent food insecurity were more controlling with kids, when it came to eating behaviors.  Many would “push more food” even if the child said that they were full.  These same mothers expressed concern that when their children were not at home or with them, worrying that they were not eating enough.


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    These vigilant moms also acknowledged restrictive feeding behaviors, concerned that their child was eating too much or worrying that the child might grow up with a serious weight issues.  In fact, 38.8% of these food insecure moms also worried about future weight issues.  The data from the study showed that food insecure moms were quite likely to be sending mixed food messages to kids.  The researchers were not surprised, because limited finances means the foods you typically access are high fat, high sugar, high salt, high calorie foods and those foods do inspire weight gain.  Despite clear awareness, food insecurity pushes these moms to prod the child to eat more.


    The researchers recommend policies that focus on this economic reality and its contribution to obesity trends.  Reducing food insecurity might help to limit these mixed and controlling styles of feeding in low income households.  Do you identify with this issue personally?


Published On: August 23, 2012