Nova workboard

a blog from young economists at Nova SBE

Nutrition and poverty in the west


Malnutrition is often thought of as something affecting least developed countries. In advanced economies, much of the obese populations, disproportionately of which are poor, do not receive adequate nutrition and suffer from obesity. A paper for the European commission found that over 20% of obesity found in men and 30% of that found in women was due to their Socio economical status.

The main cause of malnutrition in the west is not the lack of calories but their quality. We are facing an over consumption of processed foods filled with so called “empty calories”. Whist the total number of calories needed to live is surpassed the other nutrients needed lack. In Hungry for Change the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty reports on how vulnerable the poor are to malnutrition and obesity in the UK .  Processed foods are the main source of food for the poor and very unhealthy because they are full of salt sugar and fat. The reason they are favored by the poor is because they are cheap.

Whilst the rent and heating are fixed costs that can not be modified  the food budget is considered a more discretionary spending. In the past the cheapest foods were grains and vegetables whilst fatty and sugary foods were considered luxuries. The low cost of processed foods changed all of this. In the paper “ Obesity and poverty paradox in developed countries” the authors link poverty with obesity and cheap highly processed foods containing no nutritional value.

Why processed foods are they so cheap is worth exploring. One of the reasons is of course that a longer shelf life reduces the costs of logistics. Another reason however is that governments in the developed world subsidize corps which are meant to be transformed into processed foods . As explained in this article by Reuters subsidies have a negative health implications as research has linked consumption of these subsidized processed foods with higher levels of obesity. By making unhealthy food cheap and plentiful our governments are causing damage to the poor who have no other choice but to go for the cheapest option.  

Another barrier to consuming healthy food is simply access. Food deserts have been discussed since the 1990 and are abundant in north America as well as Europe. These are areas in which it is not possible to find healthy nutritious food. The cost to the consumer is not only the price of purchase but also includes time and cost of commute. Research shows that these food deserts are more abundant in minorities and low socio economic regions. Eating healthily is therefore more costly for the poor then for the more well off and can be added to the long list of the “cost of being poor”. 

An attempt to try and curb the problem of obesity and diabetes has been to implement taxes on unhealthy foods and subsidize healthy ones. In Mexico a sugar tax has implemented on soft drinks and seen causing  a reduction in consumption for the second year in a row . Hungary has taxed not only sugary drinks but a variety of processed foods with positive results. The WHO claims that a tax of 20% on sugary drinks reduces consumption by 20% witch is quite positive. The problem is that these taxes can be considered regressive as they will affect the poorest the most. However from a health point of view such a policy can be considered progressive. Research has only been able to find small effects of the taxation of unhealthy food but the strongest effects were for women and children from low Socio Economic backgrounds.


Malnutrition and obesity are affecting disproportionately the poor and our agricultural subsidies as well as the lack of accessibility of healthy food accentuate this situation. The health problems that follow contribute to shortening the poor’s life expectancy as well as increase health costs for society at large. This leads me to believe that reforming our food systems is primordial to tackling poverty. The way we feed ourselves currently is unsustainable and puts the most vulnerable among us in harms way. This is especially concerning as developing countries are replicating our food  models and will soon have the same challenges facing their less advantaged socio economic cohorts.


Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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