Often we associate high obesity rates with wealthy countries – a resource rich nation can afford to feast.  But in developed countries the poor are more likely to be overweight than the rich.  With obesity rates rising, researchers are searching for the link between poverty and obesity, and a new study suggests income inequality could be the culprit.

To identify a link between wage gaps and overeating, a group of 54 undergraduates were made to feel richer or poorer than their peers before watching a few documentaries – free snacks were provided, of course.  While watching the documentaries, participants made to feel poorer chowed down on the snacks, consuming 54% more calories than the ‘wealthy’ group.  Boyka Bratanova, the study’s lead, believes this reaction might have links to our basic survival instincts:

“It appears that humans and animals respond similarly to harsh and scarce environments, and this response takes the form of preemptive increases in food consumption.”

In other words, poverty causes anxiety, pushing the poor to feast in case of future famine.

The study also showed this anxiety has a social component.  A group of 93 undergraduates were asked to rate their social status, again before munching on snacks while watching a few documentaries.  But in an effort to induce social anxiety, researchers told participants that after the show they would discuss their social status among a group of peers.  While participants with a low social status predictably overate, those with a high perceived status pigged out as well.  The researchers believe these participants may have worried about jealously or retaliation at their perceived high status.  Therefore, inequality may be harmful to both the rich and the poor.

This link is troubling news as the wage gap grows around the world.  Countries with the highest income inequality – the United States and Portugal – also have the highest obesity rates.  In the US, the focus has been to provide more fruits and vegetables to low socioeconomic groups to eliminate ‘food deserts’.  But the emotional toll of income inequality might mean that we need more than an urban farmers market to curb obesity.