The socioecological model is a framework allowing for integration of the multiple elements of a person’s life. These elements occur at different levels, including the individual level, the family and household level, the environmental level, and the institutional level. On the morning of the second day of the workshop, speakers examined the link between food insecurity and obesity from each of these perspectives.
A challenge for the socioecological model is moving beyond association to causation, said Christine Olson, who moderated the session that focused on the individual. For example, there is little doubt among researchers that there is an association between food insecurity and obesity for adult women, but are the two causally related, and if so in which direction do the arrows of causation run? “Actually they probably run both ways,” said Olson, “and sorting through the amount of a relationship accounted for by the arrows in each direction is an important thing to do.” Similarly, it is important to understand what the mediators and moderators of a relationship are if a relationship does exist. Longitudinal studies are especially good for examining these types of questions.
Colleen Heflin, associate professor at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, addressed two questions in her presentation:
How are obesity and weight change related to the risk of food insecurity in adulthood?
How is food insecurity related to the risk of obesity and weight gain in adults?
Of course, individuals are embedded within families, environments, and institutions, all of which interact. Nevertheless, it is possible to try to isolate the factors affecting the individual. In particular, what are the mechanisms that connect food insecurity and obesity, and how do these operate at the level of the individual?
The first possibility is that obesity may adversely affect labor market outcomes. This could occur because of the existence of weight-related health problems, or it could occur directly as a result of employers, coworkers, and clients discriminating against individuals with high weight. The reduction of labor market income then could increase the risk of poverty and food insecurity.