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Women who receive food stamps are more likely to be overweight and obese and to spend more on health care

The Federal Food Stamp Program (FSP) helps prevent malnutrition among impoverished families by supplementing food budgets. However, women who receive food stamps are nearly 6 percent less likely to be normal weight and nearly 7 percent more likely to be obese than women who do not receive food stamps, estimates a new study. Yet men receiving food stamps are no more likely to become obese than men who do not receive food stamps.

The increase in women's body weight due to FSP participation was smaller than suggested by previous studies. Nonetheless, this increase has potential consequences for their health care expenditure patterns, suggest economists Chad D. Meyerhoefer, Ph.D., of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and Yuriy Pylypchuk, Ph.D., of Social and Scientific Systems. Their analysis estimated that participation in the FSP leads women to devote $94 extra per year to health care (which results in an additional $708 in total medical spending). This is roughly equivalent to two to three extra office visits, or perhaps one or two additional prescription drugs.

The researchers estimated a small negative relationship between health care spending and FSP participation for men, but it was not statistically significant. They analyzed State-level data on FSP characteristics, which they merged with data from nationally representative 2000-2003 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data to estimate the link between FSP participation and weight and health care expenditures of nonelderly adults. Overall, the direct effect of FSP participation on medical spending through higher discretionary income (freed up from food purchases) was significantly larger than the indirect effect through changes in weight status. Although a growing number of States are providing nutritional education to the FSP population to steer them toward healthier, low-calorie foods, it is unclear whether this has had any significant impact on the driving forces of obesity.

More details are in "Does participation in the food stamp program increase the prevalence of obesity and health care spending?" by Drs. Meyerhoefer and Pylypchuk, in the May 2008 American Journal of Agricultural Economics 90(2), pp. 287-305. Reprints (AHRQ Publication No. 08-R072) are available from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse.

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