Cornell studies find women in food-insecure homes engage in more binge eating and eat fewer fruits and vegetables

Poor rural women who don't always have enough food in their homes exhibit binge eating patterns and are only about half as likely as other women to consume daily the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables. Therefore, these women are less likely to consume adequate vitamin C, potassium and fiber, according to a new Cornell study.

In one of the first studies to look at how food insecurity affects food intake in women, the Cornell researchers said that women in food-insecure households eat particularly less fruit, salads, carrots and other vegetables than other women while consuming a similar number of calories. In addition, the researchers report that the more food insecure a woman's household, the higher she tended to rank on an eating disorder scale.

The researchers suspect that such eating patterns may put food-insecure women at higher risk for obesity because they overeat at times when adequate foods become available to the household. Food-insecure women, therefore, may be at potentially higher risk not only for obesity but also for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and other chronic diseases.

In a related study, the researchers found that women who lived in food-insecure households in rural upstate New York tended to be without savings, living in larger households, had unexpected expenses and spent less money on food than other women, and they were more likely to be single parents. In addition, if the family received food stamps, they were more likely to report that they had to add $50 or more to meet their family's food needs for the month.

Similarly, women who had low food supplies in their households tended to have low education levels, low food expenditures, did not have a vegetable garden and did not receive free milk, eggs and meat.

"These studies are among the first to use a new and validated measure of food insecurity status," said Christine Olson, Cornell professor of nutritional sciences and an expert on hunger. "They help show that while starvation does not occur in this country to the extent that it still does

in developing countries, food insecurity and hunger certainly do. Hopefully, these findings will help improve the development and targeting of interventions to alleviate food insecurity."

With Cornell colleagues epidemiologist Edward Frongillo Jr. and nutritionists Barbara Rauschenbach and Ann Kendall, Olson measured food insecurity of 193 women with children living in a rural county of upstate New York.

The researchers' findings on how food insecurity influences food intake were published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (October 1996 ). The study on what factors contribute to household food insecurity was published in Food Economics and Nutrition Review (1997, Volume 10, No. 2). The researchers' work also was summarized in Human Ecology Forum (Fall 1996).

An expert panel of the American Institute of Nutrition defined food insecurity as "whenever the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or the ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways is limited or uncertain." With this definition in mind, Olson then developed, with former graduate student Kathy Radimer, the new and relatively simple Radimer/Cornell measure of food insecurity -- a valid and reliable measure of food insecurity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently commissioned the Census Bureau to include questions from the Radimer/Cornell scale as part of the Current Population Survey, from which poverty rates and unemployment rates for the U.S. are derived.

Using the new approach to define and measure hunger, Radimer and Olson reported in 1992 that food insecurity ranges from mild to severe. Mild insecurity involves uncertainty and anxiety about having enough food in the household to affecting what and how adults in the home eat. Households are considered as undergoing severe food insecurity when the children go hungry.

The Radimer/Cornell measure views hunger not only as a biological phenomenon but also as social and psychological phenomena and includes chronic anxiety or worry about not having enough food. Using the new measure, Olson said that food insecurity in this country has been seriously understated and much more prevalent than previously estimated.

"We interviewed some women who would periodically go three days without food and experience up to four months with no income," Olson pointed out. "In about 10 percent of the households, which was skewed to oversample low income, children periodically went hungry."

"In general, we found that food insecurity relates to dietary quality in a way that increases a woman's risk of being unhealthy," Olson said. "Such findings are important: food-insecure women are potentially at greater risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension."

In addition, Olson points out that based on their research findings on the sufficiency of food stamps, proposed changes in the U.S. food assistance programs may result in increased food insecurity, particularly among two-parent families with older children who are currently given the same amount of food stamps as, for example, a single mother with two small children.

Olson and her colleagues are currently working on research that examines the relationship between food insecurity and obesity.

The studies were supported, in part, by the New York State Department of Health, the Cooperative State Research Service of the USDA and the Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison, under the 1995 Sabbatical Grants Program of the USDA, Food and Consumer Service.

Media Contact

Media Relations Office