You Are What You Ate

Nancy MendezBy Nancy Mendez, Director of Community Impact Operations, United Way of Greater Cleveland

Film critic Roger Ebert, in describing “Citizen Kane,” wrote, “Human happiness and pain are not found in big ideas but in the little victories or defeats of childhood.”

Many factors that keep adults in adverse situations (physical, mental, even financial) often stem from early childhood environmental conditions – victories and defeats beyond their control. Social service and philanthropic organizations concerned with breaking the cycle of poverty embrace that ideology, and in the area of food and nutrition, the scientific community is catching up.

New research published in Psychological Science shows “growing up poor promotes eating in the absence of hunger in adulthood, regardless of one’s wealth in adulthood,” according to psychological scientist Sarah Hill of Texas Christian University. “These findings are important because they suggest a person’s developmental history may play a key role in their relationship with food and weight management.”

As Jake Steinfeld, chairman of the National Foundation for Governor’s Fitness Councils, said in an April 27 opinion piece in The Plain Dealer, “Childhood obesity is a real problem. Not only is this preventable disease costing us billions of dollars in direct health care expenses annually, but children who are overweight will most likely become obese adults.”

Existing research links childhood poverty as a risk factor for obesity, but the details driving this relationship are still debated. As Hill states in her public report, “While a lack of access to healthy foods and safe places to play may help to explain the association, [we] wondered whether early experiences might become biologically embedded in ways that shape how individuals regulate energy needs throughout the lifespan.”

“This biological blueprint would help children survive in impoverished environments, leading them to seek out food whenever it is available, and would continue to drive their behavior as they aged, regardless of whether their access to food had improved.”

United Way of Greater Cleveland’s work stresses intervention in several areas of childhood, beyond survival necessities. The patterns of victories and defeats echo down the years in reading skills and educational success, financial literacy, dealing with trauma and family relationships. But Hill’s breakthrough in food quality and availability and obesity may be one the public can easily relate to, and act upon.

“We were surprised by the lasting impact that one’s childhood environment plays in guiding food intake in adulthood,” Hill said. “We were also surprised by the fact that one’s level of wealth in adulthood had almost no impact on patterns of food intake.”

In his Washington Post story on Hill’s findings, Roberto A. Ferdman wrote, “Increasingly, it seems the key to breaking the cycle of poverty might lie in understanding that the gap begins to grow at a very early age, cementing itself in ways that make it very difficult to untangle. And there are few things as stark as the difference between how poor and rich kids develop relationships with food.”

The often-quoted statistic that life expectancy in Cleveland’s Lyndhurst neighborhood is nearly 25 years longer than that of nearby Kinsman is a powerful example of this stark difference. Eight miles should not make the difference between a quarter-century of life. But the relative dearth of quality food access undoubtedly impacts this shameful statistic. United Way invests in Burten, Bell, Carr Development’s efforts to turn this around in the Kinsman area. BBCD offers such programs as a mobile market that delivers fresh produce, cooking classes for ages seven through 12, and nutrition and wellness programs to fight the food disparity the cycle of poverty spreads like cancerous sand in a growing desert.

There will still be questions and doubts. As stated in Hill’s public report, “The researchers caution that these findings do not establish a direct causal relationship between childhood poverty and eating in the absence of energy need. However, they do suggest that early environmental experiences may influence how individuals regulate their energy needs.”

“Our research suggests that people who grew up in relatively impoverished environments may have a harder time controlling food intake and managing their body weight than those who grew up in wealthier environments,” Hill said.

In 2015, United Way set its sights on giving more people access to healthy food. With donor and volunteer help, more than 35,000 individuals were served through our food programs; that equals more than a half-million healthy meals, in 2015 alone, more than double the amount anticipated.

Hill’s research brings an important topic to light. If we recognize the power of childhood’s victories and defeats, we can work harder and earlier to foster triumphs, and lessen the impact of the losses.

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