The extent of research on food insecurity and obesity has grown considerably since 1995, when a leading pediatrician published a medical case report that proposed a relationship between hunger and obesity (Dietz, 1995).

At first, the relationship between food insecurity and obesity was considered counterintuitive and labeled a paradox. This was due, in part, to our limited understanding of the causes and consequences of food insecurity. But now, with a more extensive research base and comprehensive conceptual framework, researchers conclude that the “coexistence of food insecurity and obesity is expected given that both are consequences of economic and social disadvantage” (Frongillo & Bernal, 2014).

While food insecurity and obesity can co-exist in the same individual, family, or community, the research on whether there is a statistically significant relationship provides mixed results (Dinour et al., 2007; Eisenmann et al., 2011; Franklin et al., 2012; Larson & Story, 2011; Morales & Berkowitz, 2016).

  • A number of research studies in the U.S. have found positive associations between food insecurity and overweight or obesity (Holben & Taylor, 2015; Metallinos-Katsaras et al., 2012).
  • Other studies have found no relationship (Gundersen et al., 2009; Speirs et al., 2016), or even a lower risk of overweight or obesity with food insecurity (Rose & Bodor, 2006).
  • Associations, or lack thereof, often differ by gender, age, and/or race-ethnicity (Caspi et al., 2016; Kaur et al., 2015; Martin & Lippert, 2012; Pan et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2016).

Making comparisons across studies is further complicated by differences in study design, measures of weight and food security status, and sample size and characteristics.

Overall, based on several reviews of the literature, the strongest and most consistent evidence is for a higher risk of obesity among food insecure women.