Health threat

Study: Teens living with food insecurity more likely to have central obesity

Food insecurity is linked to central obesity, excess weight and other markers of metabolic syndrome, according to a JAOA study.


Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. households with children is affected by food insecurity, meaning family members lack access to the foods they need to adequately maintain their health. Between 2003 and 2013, the proportion of U.S. kids living with severe food insecurity nearly doubled. “This is a looming health issue for the nation,” says David H. Holben, PhD, a professor at the University of Mississippi.

To delve into this health threat, Dr. Holben and Christopher A. Taylor, PhD, an associate professor at Ohio State University, analyzed data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey. In that survey, which took place between 1999 and 2006, researchers conducted home interviews, physical exams and lab testing with a cross-sectional sample of adolescents ages 12 to 18. Data on food security was available for roughly 7,400 participants.

Health conditions associated with food insecurity

Dr. Holben and Dr. Taylor’s study, published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, found a significant link between household food insecurity and health concerns such as obesity. For example:

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  • Young people from homes with marginal or low food security were significantly more likely to be overweight.
  • Obesity was 1.3 times more common among participants from households with marginal food security than it was for teens in highly food-secure homes.
  • Central obesity, which is linked to heart disease and metabolic conditions, was about 1.5 times more common among adolescents from food-insecure households. Central obesity is marked by an excess of fat around the abdomen.

“These families often have to make the difficult decision of choosing to buy healthy food or buying food they can afford,” says Dr. Taylor. “Physicians can help patients identify resources such as local food banks or the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to help bridge that gap.”

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