Four Things You Need to Know About Hunger and Heart Disease

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Greg Katz, medical doctor and co-founder of 2Armadillos, leading a workshop at the Capital Area Food Bank Hunger Summit last week

Greg Katz, medical doctor and co-founder of 2Armadillos, leading a workshop at the Capital Area Food Bank Hunger Summit last week

While leading a workshop at the Capital Area Food Bank Hunger Summit last week, Greg encouraged attendees to think about ingredients, not nutrients. “It doesn’t necessarily matter what the specific macronutrient content is,” he said. “What’s more important is the food that you’re eating.”

That means avoiding simple carbohydrates like the enriched white flours often found in bread, and instead seeking out more wholesome ingredients — fruits, vegetables, legumes, and well-sourced meats.

For the 50 million people struggling with hunger in the United States, however, accessing these foods can prove difficult. And this struggle can have lasting effects on their health.

Heart disease — the buildup of plaque in arteries that leads to heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease — is responsible for 1 out of 4 deaths in the nation, and the risk may be even higher for those who are hungry. 

Here are four important points about hunger and heart disease that Greg Katz,medical doctor and co-founder of 2Armadillos, discussed during the food bank’s workshop.

1. Those who experience hunger may be more likely to develop heart disease.

Elevated levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone that your body releases when you’re hungry or stressed, may increase the risk for heart disease for people who are chronically experiencing these problems. High cortisol levels are associated with elevated blood sugars and decreased bone density. 

When you’re struggling with hunger over the long term, your body is pumping out a ton of cortisol and can cause dysregulation of its release.  This may lead to increased risk for your health and heart.

2. Hunger can have lasting effects on unborn babies.

In the Netherlands, during the end of World War II, millions of people were affected by a forced food embargo imposed by invading Germans. The finite period of starvation in a previously well nourished population provided a once in a generation window for scientists to study the effects of hunger. The study that followed — dubbed theDutch famine study — provided a glimpse into the lasting effects of hunger.

It found that hunger didn’t affect everyone equally. Compared to their siblings, those who experienced hunger in utero had a greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, depression, and schizophrenia. These effects persisted not just for those people affected by the famine, but also for their children and grandchildren. These multigenerational effects were mediated by epigenetic changes – literally changes in how we express our DNA.

So what does this mean? The study showed that even transient periods of hunger during crucial developmental stages will change how our genes are expressed. And the effect can persistent for generations.

3. Agricultural subsidies have helped make processed foods cheaper and more accessible than fruits and vegetables.

In the United States, processed foods are more affordable than whole, natural foods. And here’s why: The government provides agricultural subsidies to keep certain food prices low. 

Corn, soybean, wheat, and dairy receive the most support. But keeping these crops cheap doesn’t exactly fall in line with efforts to eat more fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, agricultural subsidies keep prices low for high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.

“We’re giving the worst possible options to the people who need it most,” Greg said. “Based on governmental policies, we’ve made the unhealthiest food the cheapest.”

4. There are ways to provide better options to those who need it most.

In 2008, the American Journal of Public Health released a study about the food shopping habits of low-incomewomen. Participants received $10 vouchers a week for shopping at local farmers’ markets. Eventually, the women started buying more servings of fruits and vegetables, and after the six month study – as well as the subsidies – ended, many continued to buy more produce. 

There are ways to reduce the risk for heart disease among those who are hungry — whether it’s through shopping incentives, gardening projects, or governmental policy. 

Want to find ways to help? Donate whole grains, beans, and healthy cereals at a local food bank near you.

This post was first published on 2Armadillos.com.

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