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Poverty and inequality linked to overeating, claims study

Research shows that people eat to 'self-soothe' anxiety when they feel unequal to others.

Obesity: The findings could lead to a rethink in consumption taxes (file pic).

Poverty and inequality makes us eat more according to new research from the University of St Andrews.

The research, published by the journal Appetite, provides the first evidence that there is a psychological link between people who perceive themselves as poor and increased food consumption.

The study by Dr Boyka Bratanova also suggests that people eat more calories to ‘self-soothe’ a sense of anxiety when they feel unequal to others.

Dr Bratanova says that her research shows that the introduction of consumption taxes, like George Osborne’s sugar tax, is unlikely to deter people from overeating and likely to push them further into poverty.

The research provides the first experimental evidence that poverty and inequality can cause obesity through increased consumption of high-calorie food, and that there are psychological mechanisms linking these economic conditions to eating behaviour.

Dr Bratanova, a lecturer in Management at the University of St Andrews, worked with a team of international researchers for the study.

She said: “Feeling poor and feeling unequal can simultaneously influence eating behaviour, pushing people to approach high-calorie food and consume larger amounts of it.

“It appears that humans and animals respond similarly to harsh and scarce environments, and this response takes the form of pre-emptive increase in food consumption.

“Inequality, on the other hand, evokes a sense of anxiety, and this is true both for the disadvantaged and for the advantaged. The disadvantaged are worried that others will look down on them and see them as inferior, the advantaged are worried that others may envy them and challenge their privileged position.

“This social anxiety in turn pushes people to consume larger amounts of food high in sugar and fat as a way to soothe their emotions.”

In two studies, the team led by Dr Bratanova set out to test the hypotheses that perceived poverty triggers increased food consumption and that inequality induces anxiety, which in turn leads to an increase in eating.

The first study experimentally manipulated poverty and measured inequality, the second study did the reverse.

Dr Bratanova found that participants induced to feel poor ate on average 54% more food than participants induced to feel wealthy.

Additionally, participants who rated themselves as being from a lower socioeconomic backgrounds tended to worry that others would look down on them, and this was associated with increased calorie intake.

The scientist hopes that the findings will be used to re-evaluate tax and education-based interventions aimed at obesity treatment and prevention.

She added: “The introduction of consumption tax, like the recently introduced sugar tax by the Chancellor George Osborne, is essentially a flat rate tax, and it hits the poorest the hardest.

“Provided they consume high-calorie food to satisfy a psychological instinct, punishing them with higher tax seems unfair.

“People who feel poor would probably continue to eat high-calorie food at a similar rate as this food provides them with a higher caloric yield. This is hard to overturn, because the urge comes from a perception of their economic reality.

“So getting them to pay a higher price is unlikely to drastically change their consumption behaviour, but it is likely to push them further into poverty.”

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