How Poverty Affects the Way We Eat

Regardless of wealth in adulthood, growing up poor can affect the way we eat and think about food, a new study shows
How Poverty Affects the Way We Eat


In a study, subjects who grew up in low-income homes, regardless of current status, were more inclined than their peers to eat food even when they were not hungry.

People raised in poverty tend to eat even when they are not hungry as a result of being conditioned to store food “in ways that promote survival in harsh and unpredictable ecologies,” according to new research published in the Psychological Science journal.

This habit persisted into adulthood even if subjects entered into a more comfortable socioeconomic status (SES). Conversely, people who were raised in high SES environments tended to consume food based on their immediate energy need and level of hunger.

The practice of eating in the absence of hunger has been well-identified in low SES populations, where being accustomed to food scarcity has led many families to overeat when food is available, leaving low-income households at higher risk for becoming overweight or obese.

In the study, 31 undergraduate women were recruited to participate in a so-called customer research study, and were asked to sample and rate a bowl of pretzels and a bowl of chocolate chip cookies. After completing the ratings, subjects were told to eat as much of the leftovers as they pleased. Later, these subjects were asked to complete surveys about their childhoods before the age of 12 and rate their level of agreement on three statements: “My family had enough money for things growing up,” “I grew up in a relatively wealthy neighborhood,” “I felt relatively wealthy compared to others my age.”

Although researchers did not note a big difference in the calories consumed between the women from poorer backgrounds and those with more comfortable backgrounds, they did observe a notable difference in how these two groups of women ate when they were not hungry. Overall, the women from lower SES environments consumed more calories and ate more of both leftovers than their peers. 

“We were surprised by the lasting impact that one's childhood environment plays in guiding food intake in adulthood,” said lead researcher, Sarah Hill of Texas Christian University. “We were also surprised by the fact that one's level of wealth in adulthood had almost no impact on patterns of food intake.

“Our research suggests that people who grew up in relatively impoverished environments may have a harder time controlling food intake and managing their body weight than those who grew up in wealthier environments.”

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