Life Lately & Weight and Wellness Lecture #2: The interplay between poverty and obesity.

How’s it hanging Homo sapiens? How’s the weather where you are? I don’t mean to brag, but Seattle is in the midst of some uncharacteristically marvelous meteorological conditions.

Oh STOP, no, no...DON'T STOP!
Oh STOP it…no, no, no…DON’T STOP!

The mighty weather gods, Cliff Mass of UW and Thor of Asgard, are truly smiling upon the Emerald City from on high.

Or from on my sheets, in the case of Thor. Yes I'm a 26-year old Ph.D. candidate who sleeps on "Avengers" I haven't dated anyone in a while, why do you ask?
Or from on my sheets, in the case of Thor. Yes I’m a 26-year old Ph.D. candidate who sleeps on “Avengers” sheets…no I haven’t dated anyone in a while, why do you ask?

I started this particular Sunday with a slow-but-scenic 10 mile run.

Hey! Remember how this used to be a running blog?
Hey! Remember how this used to be a running blog?
It is HARD to argue with the sunrise over the Montlake cut.
It is HARD to argue with the sunrise over the Montlake cut.

After completing this morning’s mileage, I struck out for my favorite coffee shop, fully intending to put the finishing touches on the last chapter of my thesis.


However, now that my Americano is in hand, I’ve decided it would be MUCH more fun to check in with you lovely people, my gentle readers. My thesis can remain a 93-pages-of-single-spaced-text-that-doesn’t-have-references-inserted-yet albatross around my neck, for the time being.


Last Tuesday I attended a fantastic talk by Dr. Adam Drewnowski, a faculty member in UW’s School of Public Health. The lecture was the second of an ongoing “Weight and Wellness” series, exploring issues at the intersection of public health, food policy, culture, and society.


Tuesday’s talk was the perfect follow up to Michael Pollan’s opening address about our general national eating disorder: a fascinating seminar titled “Obesity and Poverty: Linking Food, Health, and Incomes.” Dr Drewnowski conducts beautiful epidemiological research to create high-resolution maps and investigate the interplay between income, access to grocery stores, food behaviors, obesity rates, and socioeconomic status. His research shows that local property values are one of the best predictors of diet-related pathologies, such as diabetes. He makes the argument that the obesity epidemic is not simply a side-effect of rising income inequality, but rather a direct consequence of economic disparities. The food system in America today perversely creates conditions where people who can afford to spend the least on food consume MORE calories than those with money to spare.


The average person on supplemental nutritional assistance (SNAP, or food stamps) receives $29 per week to spend on food. Gwyneth Paltrow recently attempted to understand how low-income people try to get by in this country by undertaking her own “food-bank challenge.” If Gwyneth only ate the ingredients she purchased for an entire week, according to Dr. Drewnowski’s calculations, she would be surviving on just over 800 calories per day.

SEVEN limes!?
SEVEN limes!?

Even for incredibly thin white women whose work doesn’t demand intense physical labor, 800 calories is barely enough to survive. While it’s easy to laugh at Gwyneth’s naiveté (and some excellent pieces have been written about what $29 per week ACTUALLY looks like for low-income people), I applaud her attempts to raise awareness of the difficult choices people in poverty must make regarding food. For people living in extreme poverty, eating fresh, healthful, plant-based meals every day is simply not realistic. Eating well not only costs more, but high-end grocery stores AREN’T located in low-income neighborhoods.

Have you EVER in your life seen a Whole Foods next to a taco bell?
Have you EVER in your life seen a Whole Foods next to a taco bell?

One of the most fascinating insights from Dr. Drewnoski’s talk was the relationship between where people get their groceries and their likelihood of being overweight. Obesity rates among Whole Foods shoppers are SEVEN times lower than those at discount grocery stores like Albertsons and QFC. While it is easy for well-educated, high-income food advocates (like Michael Pollan) to issue platitudes like: “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” poverty makes a healthful plant-based diet unattainable.

Corn-syrup and soy oil are technically plants.
Corn-syrup and soy oil are technically plants.

Dr. Drewnoski pointed out that heavily processed, high-calorie foods are cheap, convenient, and satisfying. (While snakily pointing out, as I have mentioned before, that all of these junky-products technically come from plant-based corn syrup). He outlined some of his current research and reform efforts, including new pricing schemes for SNAP based on energy versus nutrient density. Overall it was a thought-provoking talk, with a wealth of information, and a beautiful data-based approach to addressing public health. I left feeling amazingly grateful that I have the time and financial resources to eat a healthful diet. I’m looking forward to the rest of the talks in this lecture series; the food system in America is clearly in need of a serious overhaul, and it’s fascinating to hear perspectives from public health researchers on the front-lines.

I'm also looking forward to eating this purple broccoli I bought at the farmer's market yesterday!
I’m also looking forward to eating this purple broccoli I bought at the farmer’s market yesterday!

I hope that everyone reading this feels similarly blessed, and maybe inspired to take notice and take action when congress attempts to further slash the budget for supplemental nutritional assistance.

Ugh...THIS guy's plan, again.
Ugh…THIS guy’s plan, again.

For this little blogger it’s time to press publish on this post, write a chapter about DNA lesions for my thesis, then get outside and enjoy a sunny Seattle Sunday.

STOP IT, Seattle...No...never stop!
STOP IT, Seattle…No…never stop!

Have a WONDERFUL weekend!

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