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1 in 3 is obese - even the homeless
May 25th, 2012
11:46 AM ET

1 in 3 is obese - even the homeless

Obesity is a widespread epidemic, even among the homeless.

While the popularized image of a homeless individual is one of skin and bones, a new study shows the reality is not so. One in three (32.3%) homeless individuals in the United States is obese, highlighting a hunger-obesity paradox.

The paradox is that hunger and obesity can exist in the same person. And although a person may be overweight or obese, he or she can lack proper nutrition.

Nutrition is a daily challenge for homeless people, as the foods they manage to get are often full of preservatives and high in sodium, fats and sugars.  They may not have access to healthier options like fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s the lowest socio-economic group who has the biggest obesity problem,” said Paul Montgomery, one of the authors of the study published in the Journal of Urban Health.  “No one looked at the homeless problem before.  What we found was this group has a significant obesity problem that wasn’t known.”

The obesity rate in a sample of 5,632 homeless adults seen at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program was similar to that seen in the general population.

“It just mirrors what Americans look like in general,” said Barbara Dipietro, policy director of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “It follows the homeless in general. They are more economically driven. They are intact families and people who are coming into homelessness, who don’t come with behavioral health issues. When we look at the homeless population, we think they’re different, but they’re like everyone else.”

Two out of three homeless individuals were either overweight or obese. The study found that 32.6% were normal weight and that 1.6% was underweight.

“Although underweight has been traditionally associated with homelessness, this study suggests that obesity may have replaced underweight as the new malnutrition of the homeless,” the authors wrote.

The researchers found that 5.6% of this population were morbidly obese, meaning they had BMIs greater than 40.  A 250-pound man who stands at 5 feet and 7 inches would have a BMI of 40. A BMI over 25 is considered overweight; a BMI over 30 is obese.

In further analyses, homeless women (42.8%) were more likely to be obese than homeless men (29.7%).

“Our results are in line with [the] hunger-obesity paradox,” said Montgomery. “People feel hungry. The body’s response is the higher calories, you store them and become obese, and you still feel hungry. It’s a circular problem.”

The human body might be hoarding calories, as an adaptive response when people do not consistently have enough to eat. The body’s response could contribute to obesity, by “becoming more efficient at storing more calories as fat,” according to the report.  Also, people who are homeless are more likely to suffer from a lack of sleep and high stress, which contribute to obesity.

When it comes to food choices, they do not have many. Even if they had fresh vegetables and fruits, they have to way to store them or prepare them.

“Homeless people don’t have the ability to choose,” said Dipietro. “They eat what they’re given. When you’re moneyless, you don’t have a stove or fridge. You don’t have a place to store food or prepare it. Everything you buy is easy-to-go, that you can store in the bag for later - that’s high in preservatives like canned foods.”

The kinds of foods served at soup kitchens are designed to feed the masses at a cheap, low price, she added.

“Nutritious food is really expensive compared to other food choices,” she said. “If you’re living on food stamps, on disability or safety net, or living on nothing, that’s the food you’re going to have to get.  A salad is not in the cards.”

Some people are inclined to buy a homeless person a meal rather than give them money. This obesity issue shouldn’t deter those people from reaching out, she said.

“If you want to take them to McDonald’s and buy them a Big Mac, that’s not the difference between obesity and health,” she said. “You can buy them a salad. There are even options at McDonald’s. If someone was willing to create a connection to take them a buy a cup of coffee, that connecting with someone is the important piece.  At the individual level, you’re not making a difference in health in one meal.”


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soundoff (163 Responses)
  1. EdL

    1 in 3 homeless obese! I wonder where the 1's were when I have seen homeless gatherings. Reminds me a bit of when I read 1 in 4 have mental problems. As it were, there were four of us sipping a bit of coffee that day, I said, "OK, which one of you is it?" The three said it was not they, so that left me. Perhaps wrongly, I have not brought this to the attention of medical authorities but I have since wondered if I should.

    May 27, 2012 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • paz

      lol! word

      May 27, 2012 at 14:20 | Report abuse |
    • hmm

      Most homeless people i see look skinny as hell

      May 29, 2012 at 00:20 | Report abuse |
    • Mark Glicker

      Plenty of good food choices for the poor. Whole grain rice, beans and eggs are a good start. bananas are a consistently inexpensive food.

      May 29, 2012 at 02:33 | Report abuse |
  2. Dantheman

    At least they eat well.

    May 27, 2012 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hawk

      No, they don't. They get cheap, empty calories – low on nutrients but very filling (and fattening). Healthy food is expensive.

      May 27, 2012 at 20:36 | Report abuse |
    • thatwave

      Healthy food isn't expensive at all. Fresh food basics are rather cheap compared to the pre-packaged dinners that have higher prices for convenience. People would rather insist on perpetuating this myth that healthy food is expensive than actually go eat healthy food. I guess it makes it easier to blame someone else for your obesity.

      May 27, 2012 at 23:00 | Report abuse |
    • Gym Enthusiast

      II'm a personal trainer and eat healthy food for every meal. Are you a moron? It is THE most expensive way to eat. Purchasing all fresh fruits and vegetables is very expensive. These are foods that go bad very quickly, and if you eat them in the correct portions, you'll be out of them before they can even go bad. Go ask anyone who is in great shape if it's cheaper to eat fast food, or fresh food.

      May 28, 2012 at 04:10 | Report abuse |
    • Groo

      LOL. I can buy a TV Dinner that would fill my stomach for $2.50. You can't get healthy food that cheap. Unless you plan to grow your own, and then you have to add the time and money spent on maintaining a garden and even then you still have to buy the protein part of your meal which I can assure you will cost more than $2.50 regardless

      May 28, 2012 at 07:41 | Report abuse |
    • .

      Are you serious? Homeless guys don't eat.

      They drink. Alcohol. In copious amounts. After you give them money. To go to the convenience store.

      What do you think they're spending it on, potato chips?

      May 28, 2012 at 08:41 | Report abuse |
    • JD

      It is NOT a myth that healthy foods are expensive. Just ask a retiree on a small limited income. We are. I can buy a pkg of 8 hot dogs for $1.00 and a pkg of buns for $1.18 at Walmart. That is $2.18 for at least 2 meals for 2 people.

      May 28, 2012 at 09:37 | Report abuse |
    • SunnyCo

      Gym Enthusiast boy I'm with you!! I'm at the gym 6 days a week so my diet requires great attention. Between just me and my daughter I spend $1,000 a month on food becuse I, like you, buy tons of fruit, veggies, and high quality foods, not an ouce of junk food is in my house.

      May 29, 2012 at 11:01 | Report abuse |
  3. Howie Bledsoe

    Anyone can buy an apple. It costs what, 35 cents? People, weather homeless or not, have a choice in their diet. Sure, fancy eco-foods are expensive, ala Trader Joes or whatever, but really, a head of lettuce and a tomato is no more expensive than a crappy hamburger and a coke. It's all about laziness, convenience and ignorance. If you don't care, you will pay the price.

    May 27, 2012 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rob Huber

      "a head of lettuce and a tomato is no more expensive than a crappy hamburger and a coke"

      Yes, but there aren't many calories in a head of lettuce and a tomato, are there? It seems to me, the poorer you are, the more "bang for the buck" you want. The cost of the "crappy hamburger and a coke", in terms of calories per dollar, is quite low.

      May 27, 2012 at 16:04 | Report abuse |
    • D

      A burger would keep me sated most of the day. Lettuce and tomato, and I would be hungry an hour later.

      May 27, 2012 at 16:35 | Report abuse |
    • PlayCracktheSky

      Where exactly should they store this head of lettuce? They have no home which means they have no fridge. Plus how many nutrients are really in lettuce? They do need calories so they don't starve to death. They're not going to get those calories from lettuce. Plus at least the extra fat will help keep them warm when they have no where to go on a cold winter night.

      May 27, 2012 at 22:52 | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Hey Howie, how much protein in either a head of lettuce or a juicy tomato?

      May 28, 2012 at 00:37 | Report abuse |
    • KD

      Guess that all depends on where you live. Where I live, a head of lettuce and a tomato will set you back at least 5 bucks.

      May 28, 2012 at 02:16 | Report abuse |
    • JD

      Howie, the ignorance is on your part. I'd like to see you live on a head of lettuce and an apple. There is more to having a salad than just a head of lettuce.

      May 28, 2012 at 09:42 | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      If you make a point, please use the correct form of "whether." Thank you.

      May 28, 2012 at 11:00 | Report abuse |
    • person

      You're right... I was/am going thru a period of time where I am finacial broke and trying to secure a place to live. I have been living off carrot sticks, apples, and protein bars. It's a heck of a lot better than hamburger and soda. Also, for storage, you dont need to store an apple, just eat it. same with the baby carrots.

      June 13, 2012 at 16:38 | Report abuse |
    • Riki

      I gotta wonder what heppans if you do call 1-800-GET-HELP? (looking it up right now) Ah, suicide prevention. Not really the issue at the moment, eh? BTW our local food bank frequently puts out a plea for food that young kids can serve to themselves. Stuff that doesn't take cooking. You might check with yours for likely options.Hope your day is sunny hugs my dear.

      November 14, 2012 at 16:11 | Report abuse |
  4. Jamie

    I buy whole grain brown rice and beans in bulk – for cheap. Cook some with a can of tomatoes and you have a cheap, healthy meal. There's no reason the soup kitchens can't do that.

    May 27, 2012 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Di

      These people are homeless. They have no pots, pans, utensils with which to cook!

      May 27, 2012 at 18:39 | Report abuse |
    • Hawk

      Yes, some people can do that – but for every meal? It gets boring after a while. I have lived off of rice and beans – it gets old fast. The rest of the food you get from Food Banks is often white bread, moldy (or almost moldy) fruits or vegis and lots and lots of sweets – like cakes, donuts, pies and cookies. The sweets are so full of preservatives that they last a long time and thus stores can donate them once they are at, or past their "sell-by" date and get a nice tax write-off. Never mind that they aren't healthy for the poor to be eating so much of. But, if you are poor, you eat it. After all, it tastes good, it is filling, and you don't have anything else to eat. – Been there, done that.

      May 27, 2012 at 20:43 | Report abuse |
  5. magneticink

    ...and, as a result of these lousy economic times, the homeless lost everything.

    May 27, 2012 at 16:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Griffon

    Whoever writes the headlines for CNN's home page needs remedial English classes. "1 in 3 homeless are (sic) obese"

    May 27, 2012 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Paul

      One IS obese. (Not one ARE obese.) The headline is perfectly correct.

      May 28, 2012 at 01:20 | Report abuse |
    • Groo

      Pretty sure when you use (sic) in a sentence it's supposed to mean you were aware of an error but left it alone in a quote, not that you corrected it. The headline says '1 in 3 is obese'. That is correct English.

      May 28, 2012 at 07:52 | Report abuse |
    • Groo

      Nevermind. I just saw the date on your post and now I see what happened, lol.

      May 28, 2012 at 07:55 | Report abuse |
  7. mitsu

    obese yes, but not homeless in Orlando,FL. well most of them are Section 8, and they are hispanics(P.R.)

    May 27, 2012 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dave

      The real trash there is you.

      May 27, 2012 at 18:29 | Report abuse |
  8. Anne

    Part of the problem is that in many cities, the homeless can make choices about what foods they eat and don't eat. My Sunday school class has served meals at a local homeless shelter for years and the residents are getting larger, but they certainly don't want the healthy food.
    On one visit we served turkey meatloaf with salad and corn on the cob. The residents complained about the meal and asked why we didn't serve fries. They did clean us out of meatloaf and rolls (after we went out to buy more ketchup) but we had a ton of salad and corn left over. When we've offered a choice between healthier options or hamburgers and french fries, the vast majority will take the burgers and fries and come back for seconds on the fries while we take the healthier choices (we've tried steamed veggies and fish, hearty soups, or stir fries) home with us because few want them. It's not worth spending the time and money to prepare healthier food when the residents at the homeless shelter won't eat it.

    May 27, 2012 at 18:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MysteriaKiito

      Being homeless is a pretty miserable thing to live through everyday, so I'm sure they choose not to eat healthy because the unhealthy stuff comforts them somewhat. When I got to my biggest I usually ate out of stress or depression. On top of that I know a salad isn't going to be filling for long compared to a big hamburger full of protein. They probably want to feel full for longer so they don't have to suffer hunger pains. Many of them probably even hope the junk food and obesity puts them out of their misery faster.

      May 27, 2012 at 18:47 | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      Everyone has an excuse regarding food choices. The homeless who have made bad choices in life are doing the same when it comes to food, especially when it is on someone else's dime, then whine and complain.

      May 28, 2012 at 08:45 | Report abuse |
  9. MysteriaKiito

    I've been dieting for 10 months (and exercising) and have lost 114 lbs so far. Something I find is that dieting is NOT cheap. Fresh fruits and veggies are expensive if you want variety(celery is cheap, sure, but you need variety to be healthy). Not just that but they spoil fast. If you can't eat it faster than it spoils then you have to go buy more. And if you just buy less you run into the problem of not having enough and having to go to the store again. If you don't live nearby enough to walk, that means you're paying more for gas to get to the store. When I was overweight and still eating what I wanted I could buy mac n cheese, ramen noodles, spaghettios, chips, ice cream, etc for fairly cheap. And it almost always goes on sale so it's even cheaper! You don't see fruits and veggies go on sale often in comparison. Stores never do a "buy two get one free" sale for fruits and veggies, but you almost always see it on junk food. It's very hard to find ways to pinch pennies when dieting. It's manageable but you really have to get the hang of it. Homeless people lack the resources to even be able to save let alone afford healthy foods. And as the article states, they have no where to put it or even prepare it all.

    May 27, 2012 at 18:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KD

      Absolutely right! The focus is on obesity all the way around, but there is a reason for the spike in obesity and it has to do with the choices people are forced to make in bad economic times. People on here post over and over that eating healthy costs no more, but that's wrong. At least it's wrong where I live.

      May 28, 2012 at 02:25 | Report abuse |
    • veggin'

      The grocery store here does produce specials all the time. Bagged salads (granted, most expensive way to eat salad) are often buy one get TWO free. The trick to eating affordably with a high volume of produce is buying and eating what is in season, and be flexible with your menu based on prices. While canned vegetables are often mushy and over salted, frozen vegetables are a healthy alternative to fresh and are very affordable. Asian supermarkets are another great resource for affordable produce. You can find some pretty interesting things there too! And of course, grow your own if you have the space, or support a local farm and buy a farm share (CSA).

      May 29, 2012 at 12:04 | Report abuse |
  10. budd

    Please, obese homeless people. only in America! And we wonder why they hate us

    May 27, 2012 at 20:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. 0rangeW3dge

    and yet you still think that corn sweeteners are OK.
    Suffering at the hands of your own people...c'est la vie

    May 28, 2012 at 05:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • .

      So the next time you see a homeless guy, take his beer away and give him a stalk of asparagus.

      Just be prepared to be told where you can stick the stalk.

      May 28, 2012 at 08:39 | Report abuse |
  12. sam

    And 3 of 3 are DRUNKS

    May 28, 2012 at 05:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • .

      Or strung out on drogas.

      May 28, 2012 at 08:37 | Report abuse |
  13. John

    "What we found was this group has a significant obesity problem that wasn’t known"

    If you had spent as much time working with the homeless as I have during the past 37 years, well, you would have known about the obesity problem already. I suppose you meant it wasn't known in academic circles.

    May 28, 2012 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Michael

    II have traveled the world and seen poor people. Almost none of them were fat. I think you are confusing the word "Poor" with "Loser"

    May 28, 2012 at 08:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. .

    In December I happened to be passing the village green in my town. There is a gazebo where homeless guys bed down for the night. One guy rolled out of his sleeping bag, pulled a smart phone and made a call.

    The dirty little secret: People choose to be homeless.

    May 28, 2012 at 08:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. DK

    Recently in Vegas, tons of beggars. You'd think they are homeless. I've seen many of them on cell phones. Who are they calling? Each other? Maybe Dominos? I thought it was odd. I'm sure the fact that none of them are active adds to their problem. Passed the same people in the same place every day.

    May 28, 2012 at 09:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. gmunnie

    what a bunch of idiots our society has produced. Probably a quarter of the weeds you can find in any vacant lot or highway median are HEALTHIER than any of the overpriced veggies that you can get in the organic foods section. The problem is that people are STUPID; not victims.

    May 28, 2012 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. GiGi Eats Celebrities

    This is crazy, weird and sad. I feel like no amount of education as to what is healthy and what is unhealthy to eat will make a difference in people's lives. A lot of it has to do with willpower. Not many can resist the delicious taste of a moist cinnamon bun dripping with vanilla glaze. Luckily, I myself, can! I haven't eaten one of those in 10 years!

    May 28, 2012 at 13:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. JP

    Do you think if we provided vegetable seeds to the homeless that they would be capable of planting them and tending to the plants until the vegetables ripened? It would obviously require some support from the local authority to let them grow these plants on public land, and perhaps support from local businesses, but it could be a way to provide them with nutritious food and give them a hobby to enjoy at the same time.

    May 29, 2012 at 01:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JP

      The reason I suggest this is because the cost of vegetable seeds is extremely cheap. A full pound of tomato seeds is $30, enough potentially to grow 150,000 tomato plants, each yielding dozens of tomatoes. A pound of lettuce seeds is only $9 and enough to grow 400,000 heads of healthy Romaine lettuce. All it would require is some care, and sources of water and organic compost.

      May 29, 2012 at 02:55 | Report abuse |
  20. bob

    Our food in america is so pumped full of crap that no one really knows what we are eating

    May 29, 2012 at 07:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Dan H

    This probably doesn't really apply to the homeless, but BMI is a horrible way measure obesity. Walk into a gym, pick out the muscular guys and gals that look lean, have good muscle tone and definition. Determine each of those individual's BMIs. Quite a few of them will be classified as overweight.

    From CNN, itself: http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/expert.q.a/08/07/bmi.muscular.people.jampolis/index.html

    June 18, 2012 at 19:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rakeshkumar

      Hello,My son is 31 and he is homeless. I am emxertely worried about him. He needs medication which he can not get because of money and transportation needs and, although he CAN get disability, he doesn't have an address needed. This is a requirement in order to get his checks. He has to take a class that cost about four hundred dollars in order to get his license to drive. He has to pay child support but since he doesn't have a job, he can't pay that. He will go to jail if he doesn't pay and then the cycle starts. He will be lost, even more so than he already is. Is there anything in Montgomery County, TX as far as places he can go or people that can help him. I'm very worried and hurting over his situation. He was living in a tool shed behind a drug house. The man who was letting him stay in there died, and the girl there boarded up the house. He went to jail but not because he did anything questionable. He is troubled and when the police officer asked him his name he didn't give the right one, and that is against the law, but he was so much in a fog that he wasn't thinking clearly. He was using drugs, and during the time in jail he as since given up street drugs because he knows that this in a very self damaging life style. He knows that to be true but got so depressed about his divorce and losing his children that he seemed to just give up. He just needs his prescribed medication and doesn't want to live life as a drug addict. He is a good person but has some shortcomings due to what he was born with, bipolar and adhd. This isn't his fault. He has a good heart and the ironic thing is, is that he would help anyone that asked him. His situation is very sad and I am trying to help him find a place to stay since the church (I am not sure of the name of the church) was emxertely kind in getting him a hotel room for tonight (Nov. 1, 2010) and tomorrow, Tuesday night. After that, he is in the street again with no food and no clothes and no home. He literally owns nothing. He is penniless and has zero assets. Please, if there are any resources available to him I would be forever grateful.Thank you for reading what I have written.Lizzy M.832-388-5285

      November 16, 2012 at 01:34 | Report abuse |
  22. curi56

    Reblogged this on Faktensucher.

    July 7, 2012 at 12:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ahmed

      My suggestion on How to help elmainite Veteran Homelessness: PAY VETERANS THEIR BENEFITS PROMPTLY instead of putting them on a hampster wheel of denials. Veterans for Common Sense says it takes an average of 4.4 years for a Veteran to appeal his claim at the BVA. Many Vets can not wait 4 years for their benefits and become homeless while on the long waiting list. The VARO's keep making the same mistakes, over and over again, denying Veterans and never learning anything from the court cases that reverse the denials.The Veterans Benefit Manual published by Lexis Nexus demonstrates that there are 22 common errors made by the RO's requiring Veterans to appeal or forfeit their benefits. These common mistakes, repeated by the VARO's over and over again, result in Veteran homelessness en masse.

      October 11, 2012 at 17:54 | Report abuse |
  23. Nurjannah

    I have adopted a holesems man who is always at the corner by my husband's job. I give him money when I can because it is obvious he is mentally ill and needs it. I'll also give if I have a few extra bucks in my pocket to whomever I feels needs it. I don't really give to those people with the gift of gab' that will hound you as you're walking down the street. I assume they're on drugs and I'm not about to contribute to their high.

    October 13, 2012 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
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