People 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 spectre of "recession pounds" is a concern weighing on health professionals, who point to numerous studies linking obesity and unhealthy eating habits to low incomes.
They fear that as people cut food spending they will cut back on healthy but relatively expensive items such as fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and whole grains, in favour of cheaper options high in sugar and saturated fats.
More empty calories
"People ... are going to economise 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,US.
"Things are going to get worse," he told Reuters in a telephone interview. "Obesity is a toxic result of a failing economic environment."
Drewnowski's own research has highlighted the link between income and obesity.
"In Seattle we have found that there are fivefold differences in obesity rates depending on the postal code - the low-income postal codes have a much higher proportion of obese people," he said.
Obesity increases with poverty
He added that studies in California suggested that a 10% rise in poverty translates into about a 6% increase in obesity among adults.
The unfolding recession could inflate waistlines further as more and more people fall onto 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 Macs
There is anecdotal evidence to support such concerns including the success of US 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.
By contrast, other chains associated with healthier eating have seen their fortunes sag with the economy.
Whole Foods, which thrived prior to the economic crisis by selling organic, natural and gourmet food at premium prices, has been hit as cost-conscious consumers trade down to lower-priced stores.
In November it said that sales at established stores were up 0.4 percent in the September quarter, compared with an 8.2 percent rise in the year-earlier period.
Energy dense food cheaper
"We associate poverty with obesity because energy dense foods are less expensive. More poverty does not have to translate into more obesity, but it certainly could," said Dr Robert Eckel, the former president of the American Heart Association.
Drewnowski said it was possible to eat in an affordable and healthy way, partly by relying on the basic foods which saw communities through the Depression of the 1930s.
"The answer lies in affordable but nutrient-rich foods such as ground beef, beans, milk, nuts, cheese, carrots, potatoes, canned tomatoes, soups, and rice," he said, calling it "a diet for a new Depression." – (Ed Stoddard/Reuters Health)
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