27 Mar 2018 Guest Blog: Food Poverty, Mental Health and Obesity
Dr Charlotte Hardman is a lecturer in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool. She is interested in psychological determinants of appetite and eating behaviour and in the application of this knowledge to interventions for health behaviour change. Charlotte is also a regional coordinator for the North West network for the Association for the Study of Obesity (ASO) – UK’s foremost charitable organisation dedicated to the understanding, prevention and treatment of obesity. Ahead of the next regional meeting on the 10th May in Liverpool, Charlotte provides an insight into the theme of ‘Food Poverty, Mental Health and Obesity: Understanding the interplay to tackle health inequalities’.
Obesity continues to be one of the most pressing public health problems of our time.
In the UK, it is estimated that 58% of women and 68% of men are overweight or obese . Despite numerous efforts to prevent and treat obesity, the number of children and adolescents who are affected by obesity is continuing to rise .
The causes of obesity are complex and are likely to vary from person to person. However, one factor that has been reliably associated with obesity is socio-economic status – obesity disproportionally affects individuals from lower social classes . The reasons for this socio-economic disparity are not well understood but it is often attributed to the greater availability of low-cost unhealthy foods in more deprived areas relative to more affluent neighbourhoods . However other factors may also play a role.
Eating is much more than just responding to a biological need – our mood can also affect how, when and what we eat . Emotions such as feeling stressed, sad or anxious can lead to so-called “eating to cope” whereby we eat tasty foods as a way of making ourselves feel better. Importantly, the tendency to eat to cope has been linked with having higher body weight and with disordered eating patterns such as binge-eating  and obesity often co-occurs with mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
Importantly, individuals from lower social classes are much more likely to experience stress and mental health problems than more affluent individuals . Financial insecurity and living in poverty are inherently stressful experiences and exposure to chronic stress takes its toll on physical and mental health. When we are stressed it is harder to control our behaviour and resist temptation and we might engage in unhealthy behaviours such as drinking alcohol, smoking or eating tasty food as a way of coping. These coping behaviours could explain the link between socio-economic disadvantage and obesity  – perhaps because eating is used as a way of coping with stress.
Consideration of these issues is particularly timely given the alarming levels of food poverty currently seen in the UK. An unprecedented number of households now struggle to buy food and depend on foodbanks . Having insufficient access to healthy nutritious foods puts people at increased risk of malnutrition and obesity. It is also incredibly stressful to be constantly worrying about whether there will be enough food to feed oneself and one’s family and this is likely to influence food choices. Recent research has shown that many foodbank users have mental health problems , which will only exacerbate the daily stresses of being food insecure.
A greater understanding of the interplay between food poverty, mental health and the psychology of eating is needed in order to tackle obesity in lower-income populations. The conference will present the latest research in this area as well as showcasing new approaches to reducing food poverty which are currently being implemented in the North West of England.
If you are interested in attending, you can register for the conference by following the link below. Please note that registration is free, however spaces are already limited so book early to avoid disappointment.