AFFECTS DIET and OVERALL HEALTH
For many of us, November brings thoughts of turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries and all the trimmings of Thanksgiving. For others, a large meal isn’t a possibility.
Some in our community who deal with food insecurity consistently throughout the year rely on food pantries to put meals on the table. It means they may not have much choice about the types of food they eat, which can ultimately have a significant impact on health, according to Dr. Candice Myers. She recently created the Social Determinants and Health Disparities Laboratory at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
“We know that food insecurity changes the way you eat and what you eat,” said Myers. It might mean a diet lower in fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, and higher in fats and carbohydrates, which are often less expensive and more readily available in certain neighborhoods.
As a sociologist, Myers became interested in food insecurity when she was attending graduate school at LSU.
“We looked at participation rates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or what is commonly referred to as food stamps, across counties in the U.S. SNAP is a food assistance program aimed at alleviating food insecurity by providing assistance to low-income families. We found that communities that were more socially vulnerable were home to higher food stamp usage. They were more poverty-prone and experienced economic distress. These pre-existing, poorer community conditions really exacerbated the situation of food insecurity and food stamp usage,” Myers said.
Now, Myers is working to better understand all the elements that play a role in food insecurity, health choices and psychological mechanisms that both cause and result from food insecurity.
“One of Pennington Biomedical’s main research topics is obesity, weight loss and weight management, but if we want to develop interventions to change body weight, it may be more difficult to obtain that goal if people don’t have access to healthy food,” Myers said. “So much of what we know about weight loss comes from upper and middle class people who can afford to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into a healthier diet when they begin a weight loss program or weight loss research study and who have transportation available to join a study at a research center that may not be close to their home.”
That’s one reason that Myers is working with The Shepherd’s Market, a food pantry that is a member agency of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. There, people are able to go into the pantry and choose their own food. Having the option to tailor the food they receive to their dietary needs is integral to maintaining health, Myers said.
“One day I hope my research is able to contribute to the development of targeted programs that make it easier for people who struggle with food insecurity to access healthy options so that people from a variety of socioeconomic statuses are able to live healthier lives.”