Public Release: 

Poor American families face 'eat or heat' dilemma

Center for Advancing Health

Poor families respond to higher heating costs in the winter by buying less food and eating fewer calories -- a tradeoff that richer families don't have to make, a nationwide study concludes.

While both poor and rich families increase their spending on home fuel in winter, rich families also spend more on clothing and food served in the home during the cold season.

The poor, on the other hand, who spend less on clothing and less on food at home, end up eating 10 percent fewer calories in the winter, according to the report in the American Journal of Public Health.

"Our results suggest that poor American families face stark choices in cold weather ... and that poor parents are only imperfectly able to protect their children from cold-weather resource shocks," say Jayanta Bhattacharya, M.D., Ph.D., of Stanford Medical School and colleagues.

Poor families did not experience any significant loss of vitamins and minerals or overall diet quality compared with richer families, although poor families had worse diets to begin with, according to the researchers.

Bhattacharya and colleagues uncovered the "heat or eat" dilemma after combining records of monthly average temperatures with information from two large nationwide databases that included information on nutrition and consumer expenses from 1980 to 1998.

The researchers found that poor families spent an average of $9 less per month on food for the home with a 10-degree drop in temperature. By comparison, rich families increased their home food spending by $11 per month when the temperature dropped.

"Poor families reduced food expenditures by roughly the same amount as their increase in fuel expenditures," Bhattacharya explains.

The researchers say that it is unclear whether the 10 percent calorie reduction experienced by the poor is really "an unmitigated disaster," in light of the country's obesity epidemic and the stability of other nutritional indicators like vitamin and mineral intake.

"Even if calorie intake declines might be viewed favorably, seasonal cycles in calorie intake, which is what our results imply, may not have the same positive or even desirable health consequences as might caloric restriction among the obese," the researchers say.


The study was supported by the Joint Center for Poverty Research and the Institute for Research on Poverty.


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American Journal of Public Health: (202) 777-2511 or

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