DALLAS (Reuters) - Americans may reduce the amount they spend on food in response to a sour economy but some experts fear they may pick up weight in the process.
The specter of "recession pounds" is a concern weighing on health professionals, who point to numerous studies linking obesity and unhealthy eating habits to low incomes.
They fear that as people cut food spending they will cut back on healthy but relatively expensive items such as fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and whole grains, in favor of cheaper options high in sugar and saturated fats.
"People ... are going to economize and as they save money on food they will be eating more empty calories or foods high in sugar, saturated fats and refined grains, which are cheaper," said Adam Drewnowski, the director of the Nutrition Sciences Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"Things are going to get worse," he told Reuters in a telephone interview. "Obesity is a toxic result of a failing economic environment."
Drewnowski's own research has highlighted the link between income and obesity.
"In Seattle we have found that there are fivefold differences in obesity rates depending on the zip code -- the low-income zip codes have a much higher proportion of obese people," he said.
He added that studies in California suggested that a 10 percent rise in poverty translates into about a 6 percent increase in obesity among adults.
The rate of new cases of diabetes soared by about 90 percent in the United States in the past decade, fueled by growing obesity and sedentary lifestyles, U.S. health officials said in October.
Nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of new cases of diabetes were in the South, a region with huge pockets of poverty and glaring income disparities.
America already tops the global obesity scales. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one third of U.S. adults -- more than 72 million people -- and 16 percent of U.S. children are obese.
The unfolding recession could inflate U.S. waistlines further as more and more people fall onto hard times and seek cheaper food.
"The reality is that when you are income constrained the first area you try to address is having enough calories in your diet. And cheap sources of calories tend to be high in total fats and sugars," said Eileen Kennedy, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University outside Boston.
There is anecdotal evidence to support such concerns including the success of U.S. fast-food giant McDonald's, which has a low-priced menu that is high in fat and calories.
Chief Executive Jim Skinner said in October that the world's largest hamburger chain "continues to be recession resistant" after it posted a better-than-expected third-quarter profit, helped by a 7 percent jump in global sales.
It has successfully used its Dollar Menu to maintain its hold on cash-strapped customers.
One such customer is Dianthe Clements, 36, a mother of two in Washington, D.C., who struggles to make ends meet stocking shelves in a shop where she makes $11.27 an hour.
"Some nights we go to McDonald's, they have those value meals. Sometimes we will have just cereal," she told Reuters.
By contrast, other chains associated with healthier eating such as Austin-based grocery retailer Whole Foods has seen its fortunes sag with the economy.
Whole Foods, which thrived prior to the economic crisis by selling organic, natural and gourmet food at premium prices, has been hit as cost-conscious consumers trade down to lower-priced stores.
In November it said that sales at established stores were up 0.4 percent in the September quarter, compared with an 8.2 percent rise in the year-earlier period.
"We associate poverty with obesity because energy dense foods are less expensive. More poverty does not have to translate into more obesity but it certainly could," said Dr. Robert Eckel, the former president of the Dallas-based American Heart Association.
Drewnowski said it was possible to eat in an affordable and healthy way, partly by relying on the basic foods which saw America through the Depression of the 1930s.
"The answer lies in affordable but nutrient-rich foods such as ground beef, beans, milk, nuts, cheese, carrots, potatoes, canned tomatoes, soups, and rice," he said, calling it "a diet for a new Depression."
Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani in Washington; Editing by Eddie Evans