The smaller the paycheck, the bigger the belly, say many researchers who study poverty and obesity.

It might seem like a paradox, but not having enough money for food doesn't mean the poor are skinny. The opposite appears to be true: The lower-income are more likely to be heavy than the well-to-do.

"Obesity is an economic issue," said Cyndi Walter, manager for the California Department of Public Health obesity-prevention program, Project LEAN. Eating well is beyond the reach of many California residents, she said.

Health experts say there is no shortage of reasons why poverty is a predictor for obesity - even stress and hopelessness could be factors. Overall, it comes down to food options: Poverty not only limits choices, but also can discourage healthy decisions that have little to do with money, they say.

For starters, the low-income tend to live in neighborhoods that are flush with fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that sell mostly junk foods, the experts say. Supermarkets are few - and the fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats they carry are more expensive than hamburgers, french fries and sodas.

The low-income "are buying what's available to them and affordable to them," said Genoveva Islas-Hooker, regional program coordinator for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program.

People still are responsible for making the healthiest food choices possible, she said. But there, too, poverty's powers are hard to ignore.


Food habits begin in childhood, Islas-Hooker said. "You grow up in a household where there is limited economic means and your caregiver is purchasing food on what they can afford," she said. "You become ingrained in that type of diet and that type of pattern."

Carmen Solorvano, 30, of southeast Fresno, Calif., grew up in a big family. There wasn't a lot of money for fresh fruits and vegetables and lean cuts of meat. Meals were mostly spaghetti, tacos, rice, beans, potatoes - starchy foods.

Solorvano cooks those same foods today. "I'm used to cooking and eating the way I was raised, when I was small," she said.

She would like to fix healthier meals. She is 100 pounds overweight and her doctor has warned her she needs to lose weight. But money for healthy foods and time to prepare them are hard to come by.

Solorvano is a part-time food-service assistant. Her husband works part time at odd jobs. The family's combined income is about $900 a month, and they receive food stamps. Solorvano attends classes at Fresno City College in child development. She wants to become an assistant Head Start teacher. By the time she rushes home from picking her children up from school, she has to leave for class.

Meals have to be quick - and cheap, she said.


Foods high in fat and carbohydrates and those full of sugar are cheap, energy-dense, nutrient poor _ and filling, said Edie Jessup, a program development specialist who works with Islas-Hooker at the obesity-prevention project.

Giving children a package of Top Ramen is an inexpensive, quick meal, Jessup said. "And because it's more carbohydrates, it makes your child feel like they've had more," she said.

Fats and sugars make foods taste good, too. "We really like fat, salty and sweet," Jessup said.

Some even suspect the foods are addictive.