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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Far from tightening their belts as their spending power shrinks, people struggling to pay household bills have an increased risk of becoming fat or obese during the financial crisis, researchers said on Friday.
A study of more than 9,000 people found links between being in debt and an increased risk of being fat, and researchers warned that a squeeze on household incomes during the current economic downturn could increase stress-induced "comfort eating" and drive people away from higher-priced healthy foods.
"A person's ability to pick and choose the food they eat often depends on the financial resources they have available," Eva Muenster of the University of Mainz in Germany, who led the study, said in a commentary on the research.
"Energy dense foods such as sweets or fatty snacks are often less expensive compared to food with lower energy density such as fruit or vegetables."
Recession is biting in the United States and across Europe, with unemployment and home repossessions rising fast.
The study found that "a remarkable increase in the number of over-indebted people in European countries and the U.S. can currently be observed."
Of the 949 in the study who were in debt, the researchers found that 25 percent were medically obese, compared with only 11 percent of the 8,318 non-indebted people in the study.
Publishing their findings in the BioMed Central journal, the researchers also said debt can affect the risks for a range of chronic diseases by reducing the amount of time devoted to leisure activities and social events.
The World Health Organization defines obesity as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. People who have a BMI between 25 and 30 are defined as overweight.
Reporting by Kate Kelland. Editing by Paul Casciato