How Can Someone Be Both ‘Stuffed and Starved’?

It’s an unprecedented paradox: More Americans than ever are overweight or obese—yet many of those same people are going hungry, forced to rely on food with few nutrients.
A modern American paradox: A growing number of obese people are also nutritionally deficient because the only food they can afford is processed junk like potato chips. It's called 'stuffed and starved.' (Photo: Shaun Best/Reuters).
Mar 14, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Lorie A. Parch is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in health and lifestyle topics.

You already know that far too many Americans are overweight or, worse, obese. More than one-third of us fit the last definition, and that number is expected to jump to 42 percent of Americans by 2030.

But here’s something you may not know: A whole lot of those people are hungry.

That’s right: They are literally not getting enough to eat. And they are definitely not getting enough healthy foods—full of essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients like fiber and protein. It’s a paradoxical phenomenon that writer and activist Raj Patel has aptly named “stuffed and starved.” We look at very overweight people and immediately think they’re eating too much, instead of wondering what kind of food they have access to and what that food might be doing to their bodies and health.

RELATED: America's Hidden Hunger Crisis — Complete Coverage

Patel, who wrote a best-selling book of the same name, says “stuffed and starved” is a fairly recent phenomenon. Throughout most of human history, being overweight meant you were rich—that you could afford to eat well—but now it often means you are anything but.

“The irony is that in rich, developed countries like the U.S., if you’re poor you’re more likely to be overweight,” explains Patel.

That’s because the food affordable to people living on low and subsidized incomes usually has few of the nutrients the body needs to be healthy. And cheap food is often so processed you’re likely to feel hungry soon after eating it; so, naturally, you keep eating it. Inexpensive food also tends to be full of “empty” calories, along with too much fat and sodium, making it easier to pack on pounds. Add to that a sedentary lifestyle, stress, and other factors and you’ve got a recipe for the obesity epidemic.

Simply put, if the only food you can afford to eat doesn’t have what you need to be healthy, and it doesn’t fill you up, you’re likely to keep eating to feel satisfied. This perpetuates the “stuffed and starved” cycle.

Patel says there’s a clear reason why half the world is malnourished and the other half is obese: Both are symptoms of the corporate food monopoly.

“It’s a perverse paradox when we have more calories available per person than ever before in human history,” he notes. “There’s no reason for people to be going hungry.”

But they are going hungry, to the tune of one in six Americans. That’s 50 million people, which is a staggering amount by any measure.

And the health consequences of the “stuffed and starved” trend will only get worse if nothing is done. Rates of diabetes—the big killer that’s perhaps most definitively linked to excess weight—show that nearly 19 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease and another seven million are living with it but unaware they have it. Scariest of all are the 79 million people who are headed down the road toward being diabetic (what’s called “pre-diabetic”).

Patel calls the one-in-six hungry Americans number “mind-blowing,” but says there’s another statistic we should all be concerned about: One in three kids born today will develop type 2 diabetes, he says, and that figure rises to one in two for children of color.

“That’s a ridiculous number,” he notes, hastening to add that far from being a foregone conclusion, we don’t have to live with such devastating numbers. They are, says Patel, likely the result of “an entirely avoidable shift in our diet”—the increase in eating refined foods, sugar, and other empty calories, and the decrease in the amount of fiber and key nutrients.

But we can reverse that trend. Having studied the “stuffed and starved” phenomenon around the world and in the U.S., what would it take to eradicate hunger from America?

Patel points to the success of some private organizations, including the Black Panthers’ program in the 1970s to feed poor children. The radical activist group started the program when the U.S. government wouldn’t step in.

“At one point the Black Panthers were feeding more people than the state of California,” says Patel. “They were a service organization in many ways—offering free shoes, free prescriptions. Poor kids in the neighborhood were welcome to have a free breakfast.”

This sort of activism, says Patel, actually helped shame the federal government into stepping in to do something about hunger in the 1970s. But it wasn’t enough, and soon any gains made to end hunger in the U.S. backslid.

Today many hungry Americans rely on another group of private organizations: food banks. But with the economic downturn, these banks are typically well beyond capacity, unable to feed the swelling numbers who need their help.

“Food banks can’t meet demand,” says Patel plainly. “I do think it’s an embarrassment to the U.S. that we have so many people on SNAP [food assistance] and so many food banks.”

Patel also cites the success of the Toronto Food Policy Council, which doesn’t just hand out food, but aims to support the local community in myriad ways.

“The Stop, an anti-hunger group in Toronto, is committed not only to meeting the needs of the hungry in Toronto, but they also make sure people get entitlements and that there’s space to grow food and they make sure ultimately there are good jobs,” Patel explains. After all, he notes, when it comes to hunger, “the main problem is poverty. So they’re an anti-poverty group as well.” Even Brazil, with its staggering rates of poverty, has started a program to eradicate hunger completely.

Patel’s newest project, the Generation Food Project, is designed to raise the profile of what he calls “accidental rule-breakers in the food system.” The goal, he says, is to show “how ordinary people are taking on the food system from Oakland to Wisconsin to India, and to show how easy it is to effect change—to sprinkle ideas in people’s heads,” Patel explains. Ultimately, he hopes, we won’t need to feed people through food banks at all.

By breaking the rules, perhaps we can also begin to break the chain of events that has led to too many people with too few food choices—the unlucky millions who end up “stuffed and starved.”

Click the infographic below to learn more about the "Stuffed and Starved" phenomenon:

A Place at the Table: Hungry and Heavy

More on America's Hidden Hunger Crisis:

• One in Four U.S. Kids Don’t Know Where Their Next Meal Is Coming From

• Who’s Paying the Price for Hunger in America? You.

• These Kids Don’t Want to Be Guy Fieri, They Want to Fix Their Food System