The Stark Numbers Behind America's Obesity and Poverty Link

Recent statistical findings from Healthnews have confirmed a long-talked-about link between poverty and obesity rates in the U.S.

Simply put, when people struggle financially, making health-conscious choices becomes increasingly difficult. Imagine the hurdles faced when trying to afford nutritionally rich, vegetable-based meals on a tight budget or finding time to exercise while juggling multiple jobs.

This challenging reality is becoming a widespread public health concern, demanding solutions that tackle the root causes rather than merely applying temporary fixes.

Methodology

Healthnews employs secondary analysis of existing datasets to explore the relationship between obesity and poverty across the U.S. It leverages the latest (2022) obesity data from the CDC's BRFSS, which gathers self-reported height and weight through state-level telephone surveys and poverty data from the U.S. Census Bureau's ACS, a monthly survey detailing socio-economic conditions, including poverty status.

Calculations based on data from these sources reveal a Pearson's correlation coefficient (r) of 0.598, indicating a moderate to strong positive correlation, suggesting when one moves, the other is likely to follow.

Limitations

The analysis acknowledges certain limitations, such as the reliance on self-reported data, which may affect the accuracy of body mass index (BMI) calculations. In addition, there are significant limitations to using a single year's data to draw broader conclusions.

Interplay of poverty and obesity

Across America in 2022, the average poverty rate was sitting at 12.37%, while the average obesity rate was about 33.95%.

The states of West Virginia, Louisiana, and Mississippi are under the spotlight, not for their scenic views or cultural landmarks, but for leading the charge in both obesity and poverty.

StateObesity rate
Poverty rate
West Virginia41.0%17.9%
Louisiana40.1%18.6%
Oklahoma40.0%15.7%
Mississippi39.5%19.1%
Tennessee38.9%13.3%
Alabama38.3%16.2%
Ohio38.1%13.4%
Delaware37.9%9.4%
Kentucky37.7%16.5%
Indiana37.7%12.6%
Wisconsin37.7%10.7%
Arkansas37.4%16.8%
Iowa37.4%11.0%
Georgia37.0%12.7%
South Dakota36.8%12.5%
Missouri36.4%13.2%
Kansas35.7%12.0%
Texas35.5%14.0%
North Dakota35.4%11.5%
Nebraska35.3%11.2%
Virginia35.2%10.6%
South Carolina35.0%14.0%
Michigan34.5%13.4%
Wyoming34.3%11.8%
North Carolina34.1%12.8%
Minnesota33.6%9.6%
Nevada33.5%12.5%
Illinois33.4%11.9%
Pennsylvania33.4%11.8%
Arizona33.2%12.5%
Idaho33.2%10.7%
Maryland33.2%9.6%
Maine33.1%10.8%
New Mexico32.4%17.6%
Alaska32.1%11.0%
Washington31.7%10.0%
Florida31.6%12.7%
Utah31.1%8.2%
Oregon30.9%12.1%
Rhode Island30.8%10.8%
Connecticut30.6%9.8%
Montana30.5%12.1%
New Hampshire30.2%7.2%
New York30.1%14.3%
New Jersey29.1%9.7%
California28.1%12.2%
Massachusetts27.2%10.4%
Vermont26.8%10.4%
Hawaii25.9%10.2%
Colorado25.0%9.4%
  • West Virginia has the highest obesity rate at a staggering 41.0%. The state also places third in terms of poverty at 17.9%.
  • Louisiana appears in second place with an obesity rate of 40.1% and a poverty rate that also ranks second at 18.6%.
  • Oklahoma appears at the top of the list with an obesity rate of 40% and a poverty rate of 15.7%, landing it in 8th place.
  • Mississippi, with an obesity rate breathing down Oklahoma's neck at 39.5%, stands as the most impoverished state across the nation, with a poverty rate of 19.1%.
  • Tennessee, meanwhile, rounds out this top 5 with an obesity rate of 38.9% and a poverty rate of 13.3%, which places it in the 14th spot.

The poverty-obesity paradox

These results might seem to contradict the assumption that impoverished people are generally skinny because they have limited access to food. While that might be the case in third-world countries, it's the opposite in the U.S.

The affordability and widespread availability of high-calorie, low-nutrient processed foods (junk food) is a key factor in the prevalence of obesity among economically disadvantaged groups.


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