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Growing Up Poor, Eating Too Much as an Adult

Moving up on the socioeconomic ladder as you age may not be enough to distance yourself from the poor eating habits of your childhood.

By Sarah Hill


(Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

All Americans are at risk for obesity, but there’s a special vulnerability among our most disadvantaged groups: those with the lowest levels of education and the highest poverty rates.

The reasons seem simple enough: Poor families have limited food budgets and choices. (It’s a lot easier to find soda and potato chips on the corner than fresh fruit and vegetables.) And they often cannot reconcile their budget, work schedule, lack of transportation, and unmet needs for childcare with fitness activities or gym memberships.

But childhood poverty can have lasting effects on weight and health, regardless of one’s wealth as an adult. My colleagues at Texas Christian University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Minnesota and I have found that it makes it harder for us to regulate how much we eat, even when we’re not hungry.

Interested in exploring why obesity is more prevalent in poorer populations, we devised three experiments testing how people from different socioeconomic backgrounds behaved in front of food.

Though we asked participants about their current socioeconomic status as adults, the abnormal eating patterns only correlated with childhood socioeconomic status.

In one experiment, we told 31 female university students that they were participating in a consumer study about how much they liked certain brands of cookies and pretzels. We gathered information on their socioeconomic status as children and adults, surveyed how hungry they were, and provided them snacks, which they were free to eat or ignore. When they were finished, we measured the number of calories each woman consumed.

The results were surprising.

Women who had been well off as children ate when they were hungry, but didn’t eat when they weren’t. But those who grew up in lower socioeconomic households ate no matter how hungry they were.

In a second study, 55 female university students did not drink or eat for five hours before they were randomly assigned to consume either a soft drink or sparkling water. Then all were given the opportunity to eat cookies and pretzels. As before, we gathered information on their childhood and adult socioeconomic status.

We found that those who were well off when they were children and who drank the soft drink consumed fewer calories than those who drank the water. They compensated for the sugar in the soda by eating fewer calories. It was a different story for those who had grown up poor; they ate a comparably high amount of calories no matter whether they drank the water or the soft drink.

We invited men into our last study, which measured blood glucose levels after some participants consumed soda or water to see if their blood sugar levels mediated food intake as they should. But, once again, we found that only those who hadn’t grown up poor seemed to properly regulate their food intake.

Incredibly, childhood poverty is the thread. Though we asked participants about their current socioeconomic status as adults, the abnormal eating patterns only correlated with childhood socioeconomic status.

Growing up in a poorer household — in which parents are more likely to be less educated — could mean children are less aware of their body and its needs. Childhood food insecurity might also calibrate the mechanisms that guide eating and hunger. Growing up poor might also train children — who might not know when the next meal will come — to eat when they can.

We’re currently following up on this research by looking at the role that body awareness plays in this relationship and examining the age at which children begin to demonstrate the observed differences in their food habits.

For now, research only shows that a pattern exists. Perhaps it will also be something we can change.