The Hunger and Obesity Paradox

A number of researchers have explored the paradoxical link between lack of regular access to adequate food (food insecurity) and increased risk of obesity. (1,2) At present, however, there is no definitive answer to the question of whether experiencing food insecurity leads to obesity.

Some studies in the U.S. have found that federal food assistance programs intended to improve diets among food insecure families, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps), may actually be linked with increased risk of overweight. The findings have not been consistent, however, and may vary by program and by other aspects of the food environment, such as food prices. (3-5) More research is needed, especially pilot studies that explore different ways to improve the quality of foods purchased with food stamps. The SNAP to Health website, from the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, offers a good exploration of the issues around SNAP, nutrition, and obesity.

Read more: obesity prevention recommendations for food assistance programs


1. Dietz WH, Does hunger cause obesity? Pediatrics. 1995; 95:766–7.

2. Dinour LM, Bergen D, Yeh MC. The food insecurity-obesity paradox: a review of the literature and the role food stamps may play. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007; 107:1952–61.

3. Jones SJ, and Frongillo EA. The modifying effects of Food Stamp Program participation on the relation between food insecurity and weight change in women. J Nutr. 2006; 136:1091–4.

4. Webb AL, Schiff A, Currivan D, Villamor E. Food Stamp Program participation but not food insecurity is associated with higher adult BMI in Massachusetts residents living in low-income neighbourhoods. Public Health Nutr. 2008; 11:1248–55.

5. Kimbro RT, Rigby E. Federal food policy and childhood obesity: a solution or part of the problem? Health Aff (Millwood). 2010; 29:411–8.

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The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source Web site is to provide timely information about obesity’s global causes, consequences, prevention, and control, for the public, health and public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and policymakers. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Web site’s obesity prevention policy recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments, so that healthy choices are easy choices, for all.