Americans may reduce the amount they spend on food in response to a sour economy, but some experts fear they may pick up weight in the process.
The specter of "recession pounds" is a concern weighing on health professionals, who point to numerous studies linking obesity and unhealthful eating habits to low incomes.
"People . . . are going to economize, and as they save money on food they will be eating more empty calories or foods high in sugar, saturated fats and refined grains, which are cheaper," said Adam Drewnowski, the director of the Nutrition Sciences Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"Things are going to get worse. Obesity is a toxic result of a failing economic environment."
Drewnowski's own research has highlighted the link between income and obesity.
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"In Seattle we have found that there are fivefold differences in obesity rates depending on the ZIP code," he said. "The low-income ZIP codes have a much higher proportion of obese people."
Drewnowski said studies in California suggested that a 10% rise in poverty translates into about a 6% increase in obesity among adults.
The rate of new cases of diabetes soared by about 90% in the United States in the past decade, fueled by growing obesity and sedentary lifestyles, U.S. health officials said in October. Nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of new cases of diabetes were in the South, a region with huge pockets of poverty and glaring income disparities.
America already tops the global obesity scales. According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults -- more than 72 million people -- and 16% of U.S. children are obese.
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The unfolding recession could inflate U.S. waistlines further as more people fall into hard times and seek cheaper food.
"The reality is that when you are income-constrained, the first area you try to address is having enough calories in your diet. And cheap sources of calories tend to be high in total fats and sugars," said Eileen Kennedy, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University outside Boston.
Recession-proof Big MacsThere is anecdotal evidence to support such concerns, including the success of U.S. fast-food giant McDonald's, which has a low-priced menu that is high in fat and calories.
Chief Executive Jim Skinner said in October that the world's largest hamburger chain "continues to be recession-resistant" after it posted a better-than-expected third-quarter profit, helped by a 7% jump in global sales.
It has successfully used its Dollar Menu to maintain its hold on strapped customers.
One such customer is Dianthe Clements, 36, a mother of two in Washington, D.C., who struggles to make ends meet stocking shelves in a shop where she makes $11.27 an hour.
"Some nights we go to McDonald's -- they have those value meals. Sometimes we will have just cereal," Clements said.
By contrast, chains associated with healthier eating -- such as grocery retailer Whole Foods Market -- have seen their fortunes sag with the economy.