Obesity has generally been explained as the interaction of three factors: diet, exercise and genetics. Researchers, though, have begun to look at another element — particularly as it relates to childhood obesity — and their findings have implications for government-run social safety-net programs that the politicians wrangling over them likely never considered.
"What we see is that at least in clinical studies using rats, if you induce stress in a rat, it causes them to have high levels of cortisol, which then leads to have higher levels of obesity," said Craig Gundersen, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois. "So we thought, well, maybe something similar is happening in humans — if people are under stress, they may be more likely to be overweight."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded some of Gundersen's research into this question. And from his own studies and through a new literature review published in the journal Obesity Reviews, he and his colleagues have concluded that stress matters.
"We don't really understand the mechanism, but we do know that children in stressful situations are more likely to be obese," he said. "The overwhelming determinant of whether or not somebody is obese is genetics. Study after study has shown that exercise and diet make a small difference, but the major factor is genetics. Nobody disputes that.
"What we're saying here is that, conditional upon genetics, conditional upon exercise, conditional upon diet, some people under stress are more likely to be overweight."
So what does this have to do with the social safety net?
Low-income children have higher rates of obesity than children of middle- and upper-class families. They also live in families more likely to be dealing with the serious financial stresses of unemployment, food insecurity and home foreclosures. The recession has, of course, compounded these stressors. And social safety-net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) go part of the way toward helping to lessen such stress.
A new analysis by the Urban Institute shows that as unemployment has been on the rise since the start of the recession, the number of people relying on SNAP since 2007 has gone up by 69 percent. Between 2007 and 2010, caseloads increased by as much as 128 percent in Nevada, 123 percent in Idaho and 111 percent in Florida.
Gundersen's research suggests these benefits may not only be feeding families, but also as a result reducing stress on them and — as a result of that — reducing obesity among their children.
"Especially with respect to financial stress, this is clearly a major stressor for people in the U.S.," he said. "Large numbers of people are unemployed; oftentimes jobs are more tenuous than they used to be; there are growing levels of inequality in the U.S.; wages, especially for the middle class and poor, people are falling. All these things put stress on people. The question then becomes what can government do to alleviate that stress?"
There are, of course, individual and community-level solutions to tackling obesity, from stocking food banks with farm produce to implementing nutrition education at community centers. But at the federal policy level, this new understanding of obesity's connection to stress lends added weight to the importance of safety-net programs for keeping families healthy. Strengthen our social safety net, in other words, and we're likely to also reduce childhood obesity.
That logic is another reason to be cautious about cuts to such programs as politicians in Washington look to prune the federal budget.
"First of all, if government is concerned about hunger among low-income families, we need to continue to fund these programs," Gundersen said. "But if government if also concerned about obesity, then we need to fund these programs."