Obesity and Homelessness: A Matter of Food & Lifestyle

Are rates of obesity higher than the general population? Women experiencing homelessness have higher rates of obesity than the general population; but generally speaking rates of obesity are the same between housed and homeless population. A Harvard Medical School study from 2012 proved that.

The bigger question is how does a population group that have very little or no income get overweight to the point of becoming obese? Would it not be more logically expected that persons experiencing homelessness would be underweight? How does this happen?

  1. Lack of access to food while homeless is a myth. Most people experiencing homelessness have an abundance of food options, from soup kitchens and shelters to mobile feeding programs by well intentioned churches or student groups.
  2. Charitable feeding can fill a belly, but does not always have an eye to nutritional balance.
  3. A lot of the low-cost fast food that a person may spend the little money they have on, is high in calories and low in nutrition.
  4. Like a housed person that consumes alcohol, a homeless person consuming alcohol can deal with the same impacts of weight gain because of the alcohol consumption, as the liver converts the alcohol to fat.
  5. Day to day homelessness can be highly sedentary. A lot of time is spent waiting, sitting, and laying down.
  6. Access to structured exercise is limited while homeless. While there may be walking from service to service, it is rarely at a rate to provide significant cardio benefits.

What can and should be considered moving forward to help with this issue?

  • Where possible, consolidate feeding programs (align forces, compassion and resources!) to reduce potential over-feeding, and increase the quality and nutrition of food being provided.
  • Focus on housing quickly, as this provides an environment to better address and manage some of the underlying issues related to being obese:
    • Provide support in nutritious meal planning and preparation when the person becomes housed. (Good and Cheap is a great resource for doing this on Food Stamps)
    • Encourage some meaningful daily activities once housed that provide appropriate exertion based upon health, age and any other underlying conditions
    • Promote walking to complete tasks like grocery shopping whenever possible and feasible rather than taxis or bus.
    • Suggest walking up stairs rather than taking an elevator in larger apartment buildings, when it is appropriate for the person’s health and age.
    • Help the person getting connected to long-term health supports from a physician so that a focus on overall, long-term wellness can be mapped out.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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