Identifying the Societal Factors Linked to Chronic Disease
Released: Monday, September 23, 2019
In a nation of supersized portions and frequent food waste, the idea that getting enough of the right types of food proves challenging for many people may come as a surprise. Still more surprising — and troubling — are the consequences this struggle can have on people’s health.
According to a growing body of research, lacking enough food, or enough of the right types of foods, to make up a healthy diet correlates with a health condition stereotyped as being associated only with excess: obesity.
“Food insecurity is linked to obesity, or body weight, because it shapes what people eat. It shapes what people can afford, what they choose to purchase, what foods they have access to within their neighborhood and when they go to a grocery store,” said Candice Myers, assistant professor – research at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.
Like many of her colleagues at Pennington Biomedical, Myers devotes her career to exploring the causes underlying chronic health conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Unlike many of her Pennington Biomedical colleagues, though, Myers approaches her research from a social sciences perspective.
“I’m a sociologist, and that fits well with the questions we want to answer here at Pennington Biomedical about people’s social determinants and how those things impact their health,” she said.
Myers studies obesity from the point of view of the societal factors shaping health and wellness, an approach that starts with external factors like economic status, education level, and other environmental cues, and looks inward at their effects. Her approach both contrasts with and complements the more traditional biomedical and nutritional research many of her colleagues pursue.
“The purpose isn’t to know everything but to know something really well,” Myers said. “I approach it from a different perspective, but we know there are complementary ways that we can find research evidence that links us all together and allows us to collaborate where everyone can lend their unique expertise.”
Her sociological perspective has led Myers to explore different aspects of the questions occupying researchers at PBRC. Recently, some research has begun to show that food insecurity and obesity might affect a person’s decision-making process, and the decisions made under these influences might, in turn, help the unhealthy cycle of obesity to continue.
“The thing about food insecurity is that it is very much linked to poverty and lower income,” Myers said. “If you’re living in a somewhat constant state of not having enough, or not having what you want, then it can potentially have an impact on the decisions you make when you do get a paycheck or you do get your food stamps. This additional psychological component may lend some additional explanation for why food insecurity and obesity are linked together.”
Myers calls her transformation from “hard-core” sociologist to health researcher almost serendipitous. She became interested in how food insecurity relates to obesity as a social determinant of health, when she and a professor in her Ph.D. studies did research on food stamps data. Myers’ review of previous research for this project led her to a surprising observation: food insecurity seemed often to correlate with body weight.
Intrigued, Myers took advantage of a collaboration between her sociology department at LSU and Pennington Biomedical. When a post-doc opportunity arose for her at Pennington Biomedical, Myers grabbed it. Then, in June 2017, the Louisiana Clinical & Translational Science Center awarded Myers funding to continue exploring the connection between food insecurity and obesity at Pennington Biomedical.
“It’s not something I actually sought, but the pieces fell together that enabled me to become a health researcher and to take my skills and expertise and apply it to new questions, more health-related questions,” Myers said.
Beyond her professional commitment to bettering lives and communities through her health research, Myers also takes an active role in her community in her personal life. When her work schedule permits she volunteers as a foster mom for kittens seeking homes through a Baton Rouge cat rescue.
“I think it’s important to be of service to your community, especially finding something you like,” Myers said, adding that her research into food insecurity and health tackles an issue that affects many people in the community. Plus, the relationships she forges in the community can help her and other researchers effectively gather the data they need to help those communities.
“The local food pantry is another great place to volunteer, and we recently partnered with them to help recruit participants for research,” she said. “When you’re targeting a lower income population, a more vulnerable population, being onsite in the community can reduce the burden of transportation and other things that might preclude people’s ability to participate.”
For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit www.pbrf.org.