To name just one researcher who has uncovered this trend, Cindy Leung, a nutrition researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, found teen and adult food-stamp recipients had larger waists and higher levels of obesity than people who aren’t in the program, even when controlling for income. More than a quarter of children live in households that currently receive SNAP benefits, according to Leung’s work, and while she found that kids in the program are not more likely to be obese, she did find that children in the program consumed more sugar-sweetened drinks, processed meat, and high-fat dairy than kids who didn’t live in SNAP households.
Granted, other papers have found no association between food stamps and gaining weight. But there are other worrisome findings about SNAP’s health impacts. The American Cancer Society’s Binh T. Nguyen found that SNAP participants drank more sugar-sweetened beverages than people who are eligible for SNAP but not enrolled in it. And a USDA report published last year found that 20 cents of every SNAP dollar was spent on sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy, and sugar.
Still, Leung says her work should not be interpreted as a call for cutting SNAP benefits.
For one thing, her studies and others can’t quite determine whether the elevated odds of obesity are because of the SNAP program itself or because the people who enroll in SNAP are the kinds of people—stressed-out, poor, less educated—who are more likely to be obese for unrelated reasons. There aren’t many differences between the food purchases of SNAP households and non-SNAP households. Food-stamp recipients might be buying soda, in other words, because Americans like to buy soda.
Furthermore, Leung has found that people who apply for SNAP tend to be at the ends of their ropes. Usually, they’ve exhausted help from their families or churches. Many families in the program run out of food before the end of the month. That means SNAP recipients might be stocking up when they have funds and stretching the rest of their SNAP budgets. As other studies have found, unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy produce.
“If you’re low-income, when you’re going to the supermarket, you might see things on sale, and soft drinks and junk food are promoted [in stores],” Leung said. “The person might think, ‘My family deserves a treat,’ or ‘I’m going to buy this soda because it’s cheap.’ I don’t think it’s because they don’t care about their families.”
Another study by Nguyen found that, indeed, SNAP participation was associated with obesity. But an interesting thing happened when she looked at just those SNAP participants who were “food insecure,” or had serious problems making sure they could afford enough food: They had better diets and were less likely to be overweight—especially the white individuals.