Social safety net programs that reduce psychosocial stressors for low-income families ultimately lead to a reduction in childhood obesity, a research by a University of Illinois economist has indicated.
Craig Gundersen, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at Illinois, said food and exercise alone are not to blame for the extent of obesity among children in the United States. Psychosocial factors, such as stressors brought about by uncertainty about the economy, income inequality, and a fraying social safety net also must be considered, he said.
"Energy-in, energy-out is important, but energy imbalance isn't the only thing leading to overweight status among children," said Gundersen, the executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory at Illinois.
"We also know that people have very different ways of responding to the same amount of food intake and exercise, and one of the factors that may influence how people react to eating and exercise is through the amount of stress they're under," added Gundersen.
"As a society, we're always looking for different ways we can address public health issues, whether it's reducing food insecurity or reducing obesity," he said. Although there have been many different ways to reduce obesity, what we've found is that stress is a leading cause of obesity among children. So if there's any way we can reduce stressors from a policy standpoint, that will also have the effect of reducing obesity," he added.
The calls for trimming the social safety net that are currently in vogue in Washington, D.C., as part of a larger program of government austerity would likely lead to more obesity over time because it places more stress on low-income families, Gundersen said.
"If we cut back on benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or otherwise reduce its availability to people, that would increase the amount of stress that low-income families would face, which would then subsequently lead to increases in obesity," he said.
The study has been published in the journal Obesity Reviews.