As the economy slumps, health experts expect more Americans to develop paunchy guts and bigger butts by packing on “recession pounds.”

Plunging personal earnings lead to tighter spending; and many people ditch their gym memberships and buy fewer fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and low-fat meats in favor of cheaper edibles loaded with sugar and fat. Couple that with the specter of unemployment and stress and we have the perfect recipe for weight gain.

As a nutrition or fitness professional, you play a key role in helping clients plagued by financial woes to maintain healthy regimens on a shoestring budget. An understanding of the economic factors that influence diet and fitness habits will make it easier for you to give clients practical, cost-saving strategies to curb recession pounds.

The Economics of Nutrition

With unemployment hovering around 9% (BLS 2011b), more Americans are struggling to put food on the table. Nearly 15% of U.S. households are food insecure (USDA 2009). High food insecurity goes hand in hand with unemployment and poverty (Alaimo et al. 1998; Feeding America 2011), two factors linked to lower food expenditures, low produce intake, lower-quality diets and obesity (Drewnowski 2004; Drewnowski & Specter 2004; Drewnowski & Darmon 2005a; Drewnowski & Darmon 2005b; Drewnowski 2010a).

On top of unemployment, climbing food prices have crippled budgets, with major grocery items fueling a 3.9% rise in food-at-home prices (BLS 2011a). Higher food costs often equal less nutrition. Double-digit spikes in dairy, eggs, produce and other basic perishables encourage the purchase of cheaper, sugary, high-calorie, fatty foods that don’t spoil (Drewnowski 2003; Drewnowski, Darmon & Briend 2004; Drewnowski 2010a). Spoiled food is a budget buster. Americans trash 15%–25% of their food, with fresh produce accounting for 35%–40% of that waste (Bloom 2010). For the average family, this represents $1,350–$2,200 chucked down the disposal every year (Bloom 2010). While fresh may be healthier, to the hard-up consumer it’s a bad investment. When resources are scarce, caloric quantity eclipses diet quality (Drewnowski 2004).

For people saddled with recession pounds, the mantra of “consume fewer calories, eat more fruits and vegetables, and get more exercise” may be meaningless. Prices and income, rather than health, drive diet and exercise habits (Fineberg 2004; Gandal & Shabelanski 2010; Glanz et al. 1998; Monsivais, Aggarwal & Drewnowski 2010; Sisson 2002; Sturm 2004). In recessions, experts who tout budget-friendly wellness messages are more likely to see clients adopt healthy habits, but the will to eat better may not overcome biology.

Willpower May Not Be Enough

During times of economic strife, stress and emotional upset rise (Tausig & Fenwick 1999). A study of unemployed Americans showed that 77% were stressed, 65% were anxious, 61% felt helpless and 54% felt hopeless (Van Horn & Zukin 2009). These are symptoms of “threat” stress, where an inability to cope is coupled with distress (Dickerson, Gruenewald & Kemeny 2004).

Chronic threat stress ignites the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, leading to an increase in cortisol (Henry 1997), which fuels appetite for palatable foods high in fat and sugar. These foods induce a fiesta of reward chemicals like dopamine and opioids, which elevate mood by temporarily attenuating the HPA response (Cota et al. 2006; Yeomans & Gray 2002). Repeated activation of the reward path via HPA stimulation, the consumption of highly palatable food, or both, may lead to neurobiological adaptations that promote overeating (Adam & Epel 2007; Volkow & Wise 2005). In addition, cortisol favors deposition of visceral fat, making it difficult for a stressed client to lose the spare tire.

There is evidence to support the role of cortisol in recession pounds. Cortisol levels are elevated in the unemployed (Dettenborn et al. 2010; Grossi, Ahs & Lundberg 1998; Grossi et al. 2001; Ockenfels et al. 1995), and weight gain also coincides with unemployment. A 1% increase in the likelihood of joblessness caused a 0.6-pound increase in weight, with a 5-pound gain for every actualized 50% drop in annual wages (Smith, Stoddard & Barnes 2009).

Stress also depletes serotonin, triggering depressed mood and carbohydrate cravings (Anisman & Zacharko 1992; Takeda et al. 2004). In the recession-distressed client, cortisol and reduced serotonin provide a biological basis for eating too much cheap, highly palatable food.

Evolutionary aspects can also heighten preferences for high-energy foods during times of food scarcity (Levine, Kotz & Gosnell 2003). Storing fat to survive famines helped our caveman ancestors, but today, when high-calorie foods are cheap and readily accessible, genetic factors may induce obesity in the economically disadvantaged (Drewnowski 1995; Eaton, Konner & Cordain 2010).

In the prism of recession-pound etiology, economics, biology and genetics are three important facets. For people with limited funds, the keys to long-term motivation and change may be showing them the economic value of nutritious foods and providing practical guidelines that address food cost and stress biology (Fineberg 2004; Hill, Sallis & Peters 2004).

Nutrition Tips for Curbing Recession Pounds

Sonia Apodaca-Harms, a mother of three and owner of Tucson, Arizona–based, has been hard hit by the recession. “People have less money to spend on jewelry and cards, so my income has dipped sharply,” she says. To make ends meet, Sonia has taken a temporary job that leaves less time for preparing meals. Less income means more budgeting, Apodaca-Harms says.

“I’m more thoughtful when I grocery-shop, but sometimes for convenience and cost we go to the fast-food place. It’s just easier and cheaper. We are definitely eating less fresh produce. It’s expensive and spoils.” Instead, Sonia shops dollar stores for canned veggies and fruits. “I never read food labels,” she says. “I shop by price.” What would encourage her to buy more fresh items? “Lower prices and practical recipes,” she says. “I hate wasting food, so I freeze a lot of leftovers, but they can be boring after a while. I need sensible solutions.”

Sonia represents cash-conscious consumers looking for practical ways to stretch food dollars. To help clients like Sonia ward off recession pounds and save money, you can provide tips for nutritious, budget-conscious shopping to maximize food use (Drewnowski 2010b; Drewnowski & Eichelsdoerfer 2009).

Shedding Recession Stress and Pounds With Exercise

Perhaps one of the best stress-busting strategies is physical activity. However, 25% of the U.S. population is completely inactive (CDC 2008). The decision to exercise is based a lot on economics rather than desire. Time spent in physical activity declines with falling income and unemployment (Humphreys & Ruseski 2006). Even though the most popular physical activities (including walking, running and calisthenics) are low-tech and free, many Americans—especially the unemployed—simply do not make the time for them (Cawley 2004; Humphreys & Ruseski 2006; Humphreys & Ruseski 2007; Sturm 2004).

“It’s really hard to find the time or the money to exercise,” Apodaca-Harms says. “I would take classes at a nearby recreation center if the price was right and I could drop in.” Offering convenient, low-cost fitness programs may help the struggling consumer quell recession weight.

Gym memberships can be casualties when budgets are tight; however, the fitness industry seems resistant to economic downturns, with overall club membership remaining steady (IHRSA 2010a). Customers gravitate to facilities near their homes or jobs. The most successful clubs are located in accessible marketplaces. Such facilities attract consumers who are willing to spend modest cash to relieve stress and stay fit (IHRSA 2010b; Sturm 2004).

Recession-minded fitness consumers have changed their expectations, wanting more for less and expecting to pay lower dues while planning to use the facility more often (IHRSA 2010b). Competition for member dollars in a recession is steep. The number of fitness facilities exceeds demand. Position your facility or your services well to maximize your chance at drawing individuals who are seeking high value for low price.

Marirose Weyand and her sister Veronica Weyand took these suggestions to heart when they opened two new Pure Barre studio franchises this year in the Phoenix area. Marirose explains, “We strive to provide personalized, friendly service. We know everyone’s name and keep classes small.” The Phoenix market has no shortage of studio clubs, so competition is fierce. Says Marirose, “People love a deal, and we try to provide discounts. We allow drop-ins, so for around $20 patrons get a whole-body workout in an hour; it’s like a session with a personal trainer.” This strategy has worked well in a region touched by the housing bubble and unemployment. “People keep coming back, saying they are getting a great workout at a great price. And they tell their friends.”

Recession pounds don’t have to be difficult to lose, especially if the economic and biological factors are taken into account. By understanding what motivates consumers, you/your clients can tailor programs to meet all budgets.

Grocery Shopping and Food Preparation Tips

Help clients hedge against recession with these tips:

  • Make a List of Favorite Foods. Designing healthier meal plans that address nutrition, price and individual tastes becomes easier with a list.
  • Favor Frozen Over Fresh. Frozen fruits and veggies are nutritious, and are less expensive and less perishable than their fresh equivalents. Buying fresh? Locally grown, in-season produce is more economical.
  • Seek Bargain Proteins. Expensive and perishable, meat and fresh fish can be costly investments. Value-priced, high-quality proteins include eggs, low-fat cheeses and milk. Meatless main courses with beans, legumes and meat alternatives provide filling protein without busting the budget.
  • Spice It Up. Spices can add flavor and zing to familiar dishes.
  • Plan Meals. Meal planning helps reduce waste and cuts down on preparation time.
  • Keep Recipes Simple. Mixing familiar foods and staples in new ways can reduce dependence on convenience foods.
  • Keep an Inventory. Duplicate purchases can add up. Knowing what’s in the refrigerator and cupboards can serve as a guide for meal planning and shopping.
  • Make a Grocery List. Grocery stores are designed to entice the shopper to buy. Using a list curbs impulse buys.
  • Shop Sales. Discounts and coupons equal savings. It pays to check the weekly circular and take advantage of store coupons.
  • Avoid Shopping When Hungry. Appetite and food choice are influenced by visual cues. Going to the store on an empty stomach can trigger impulse purchasing.
  • Use Bulk Items and Coupons Wisely. Pillow-sized spinach bags and 5-pound vats of cottage cheese will probably go to waste. It’s best to stick with store brands and reasonable portions. Coupons can lessen the grocery tab but should be used wisely for items one would normally purchase.
  • Use and Repurpose Leftovers. Leftovers are appealing because they represent one less meal to prepare. But the same food night after night can be dull; incorporating leftovers into new and easy recipes will add variety.
  • Ditch Specialty Foods, Unfamiliar Foods or Odd Ingredients. It helps to forgo enriched bottled water and the like, and to avoid recipes that require odd, alien or rarely used ingredients. Repetitive diets reduce waste and cost (Bloom 2010).
Strategies for Attracting Exercisers

IHRSA (2011) suggests adopting the following strategies to drive memberships and help patrons lose recession pounds.

  • Be Membercentric. Personalized, efficient, compassionate service that takes into account realistic fitness goals can motivate the cash-strapped consumer to spend time at the most friendly and helpful clubs.
  • Be Hospitable. Facilities that strive to give members an enjoyable and uplifting experience every time they come in may expect to reap client loyalty.
  • Be World-Class in Sales. The sale doesn’t end with a signed contract. Stay in touch with clients; advise, guide and encourage them.
  • Consider Budgets. Offering specials or individual class rates is a way to reach out to cash-conscious consumers. Flexible class schedules that provide a “whole-body workout” may encourage repeat participation (Pratt 2004).


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Martina Cartwright, PhD, RD

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