• Words fail, obesity edition

    Former Senator Rick Santorum in Iowa:

    Santorum told the group he would cut the food stamp program, describing it as one of the fastest growing programs in Washington, D.C.

    Forty-eight million people are on food stamps in a country with 300-million people, said Santorum.

    “If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?” Santorum asked.

    It’s times like this that I want to put my head in the sand, too. Remember this:

    More than one in five Americans reported not having enough money to buy the food the they or their family needed. Unfortunately, there no data that separate out children, but I bet the numbers would be terrible. We already know that poverty rates for children are almost twice those of non-elderly adults, and closer to 2.5 times those for people over 65. So I imagine it’s likely that the percentage of children who are in families where buying food is an issue is higher than that represented above.

    It is possible to have both an obesity problem and a hunger problem, in the same country. Just saying that we need to cut the food stamp program because the country as a whole has an obesity problem would be like saying that we can cut all funding to our troops in Afghanistan because our bases in Germany haven’t been attacked in a while.

    Igor Volsky adds:

    The cost of the food stamp program — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — has jumped because more Americans are out of work and wages are down, not because of obesity rates. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly “70 percent households that relied on food stamps last year had no earned income,” although many households did benefit from Social Security benefits and other government programs. But a whopping 20 percent of households had no cash income at all last year.

    We can have a robust debate on the value of the food stamp program. I hope when we do that the depth of thinking on the issue will be better than I’m seeing in Iowa right now.


    • It’s absolute idiocy like this that should be called out by the “mainstream” media. Santorum and Gingrich and Cain and Perry should not have lasted an iota longer than their stupidity stopped being hidden from plain sight.

      Maybe Her Alaskan Highness was right, it is the lamesteam media – just not for the reasons she thinks.

      • Santorum is an idiot. Cheap food is calorie and fat dense. If you can’t afford healthy food, or are working three jobs and have no time to cook, you end up eating from the corporate trough

        • While I agree with your assessment of Santorum, it is beyond silly to suggest that eating healthy is too expensive. It’s a very pernicious myth.

    • This is insane. And it’s politically insane because there’s low-hanging fruit that a Republican politician could go for in seeking to reform food assistance… get all the benefits of attacking “wasteful spending” and racist dog-whistles without promising to starve kids. For example, WIC-only stores seem like a perfect target for the market-based attacks that Republicans love, and some stores in impoverished areas set their prices at the WIC maximum for some items.

    • Some also forget that high calorie food = cheap food. Its difficult to obtain and afford high quality produce, etc. Particularly in many urban neighborhoods. And often retailers that accept food stamps are establishments that cater to over-subsidized foods. Lots of red meat, sugars, processed foods, etc. It become a viscous cycle. Between the constraints to obtaining quality food, the necessary commitment from families struggling with their time and energy and multiple levels, and the lack of real nutrition education in America… something has to break.

    • I really want to second Brian’s comments. The cheapest calories that I can typically find are potato chips. You can get an amazing number in a bag of high fat crisps.

      But these types of foods (insofar as you believe in things like glycemic index) tend to stimulate hunger and are very easy to over-consume.

      Am I really the only person who would like a candy bar, crisps and soda junk food tax to make this at least a little less obvious?

    • It is possible to be obese and at the same time be hungry. A clear understanding of the science. Read Taubes “Good Calories, Bad Calories” or “Why we get fat”. To simplify: nutrition is trapped in the fat cells (by insulin). There is where it stays, unable to be used by the body. Fat people still have to eat a normal number of calories every day to go about their day (school, work, whatever). If they can’t get enough food, they become sloths (this happens subconsciously). Obese people are commonly malnourished (often documented through simple bloodwork). The same phenomenon was noted during the Great Depression. It all goes back to hormone control. If you want to reduce obesity then you need to get rid of refined carbs (which also happens to be the cheapest food source). This will reduce circulating insulin levels and allow release of the nutrition from the fat cells.

    • Why not limit food stamps to fresh or frozen foods, and limit canned or processed foods? Numerous studies have shown that people eat fewer calories and amounts of fresh foods, which in turn would help fight obesity. I guess lawmakers don’t want to stand up to the large food processing companies. I blame the politicians in this one.

    • -Just a FYI for folks articulating the “Food Desert” hypothesis:

      “Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores
      Longitudinal Associations With Diet in Young to Middle-aged Adults: The CARDIA Study

      Results Fast food consumption was related to fast food availability among low-income respondents, particularly within 1.00 to 2.99 km of home among men (coefficient, 0.34; 95% confidence interval, 0.16-0.51). Greater supermarket availability was generally unrelated to diet quality and fruit and vegetable intake, and relationships between grocery store availability and diet outcomes were mixed.


      -The reasons why people eat and live the way they do are complex and not readily ammendable to change via simple, top-down measures. This is further complicated by the fact that people generally have their own values, preferences, and sentiments and don’t generally respond well to exhortations from policy advocates, no matter how well intended.

      -If we feel entitled to intervene in someone else’s life because their choices transmit costs to us, we have two choices – either compel them to change their behavior, or limit their capacity to shift the cost of their choices onto us. It’s interesting that virtually all of our efforts have focused on compelling behavior change instead of mitigating cost-shifting in this case. The contrasts with smoking (taxes, restrictions, *and *dramatically higher premiums) are interesting.

    • Doesn’t matter if “eating healthy is too expensive” is a myth. Santorum’s claim presupposes that food stamps are why people are obese.

      It could well be possible that hungry people on food stamps are too thin while high income people are too fat (like me.)

    • Checked out JayB’s paper reference and it is very convincing.

      I must say this correlates with my clinical experience as well (i.e., the patients most likely to be on Federal assistance are usually the most obese).

      Thus, I would bet money Santorum is right about the correlation between food stamp recipient and obesity, especially given the fact that America’s poor are not poor by world standards (and thus, unlikely to be poor enough for malnourishment).

      Where Santorum goes wrong I think is in implying causation between food stamps and obesity…Culture I think is more likely to be the culprit as well as a multitude of other factors (e.g., sedentary lifestyles, air conditioning, etc.)