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The Economics of Obesity

Armen Hareyan's picture


One hundred years ago in the United States, obesity was a sign of plenty and leisure: People who could afford to eat what they wanted and to pay others to work for them were the ones that put on the extra pounds. The economics of obesity have changed dramatically since then, with the burden of overweight and obesity falling disproportionately on the poor.

Beyond Behavior - Cause of Obesity

Since poor eating habits and lack of exercise are the main causes of obesity, researchers and physicians have focused on ways to change these individual health behaviors in low-income communities. Recent studies, however, suggest that these direct causes have their roots in systemic social and economic factors that are not easily overcome with messages of "eat less and move more." Unsafe neighborhoods, lack of convenient grocery stores, less leisure time and tight food budgets may all contribute to obesity and accompanying diseases such as diabetes among the poor.

Money and More - Obesity

The link between obesity and poverty can be complicated by race, gender and education, researchers have found. For instance, a national survey of 9,621 people found that education, more than race or income, predicted whether people got most of their exercise from work or leisure-related activities. In another national study, researchers discovered that children from higher income families eat more at fast food restaurants than those from low-income families, possibly because they have more personal disposable income. The economics of poverty also seem to affect women more strongly than men, according to some researchers.

The Facts:

  • Differences in the prevalence of obesity among low, middle and high socioeconomic groups in the United States have decreased since 1971, according to a recent review.

  • In a recent review of obesity in developed countries, researchers found that weight gain over time was associated with lower education levels and "blue-collar" occupations.

  • A review of obesity in developing countries suggests that the prevalence of obesity tends to shift toward lower socioeconomic groups as the country's gross national product rises.

  • Results from a 2003 study suggest there is a significant link between food-stamp program participation and the likelihood of obesity among low-income women.

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  • A 34-year study found that weight gain among women in the study was associated with low overall socioeconomic status calculated over three decades.

  • A survey of more than 2,000 black men and women found that those with higher incomes and higher education levels ate more fruit daily than those with lower incomes and education.

  • A 2004 study of fast food restaurants around New Orleans found 2.4 such restaurants per square mile in mostly black and low-income neighborhoods, compared with 1.5 restaurants in predominantly white neighborhoods.

  • Among white teen girls, the prevalence of overweight decreases with increasing socioeconomic status. Among black teen girls, the prevalence of overweight remains the same or increases with increasing socioeconomic status, according to national survey data.

  • Low-and middle-income neighborhoods have significantly fewer resources for physical activity such as parks, fitness and community centers and walking trails than high-income areas, according to a 2003 survey.

  • Children are less likely to be physically active in low-income neighborhoods deemed unsafe by their residents, according to several reports.

  • National survey data analyzed in 2003 suggest that the more hours a mother works each week over a child's lifetime, the more likely that child is to be overweight. The effect is strongest among high socioeconomic-status mothers.

  • Adolescents with no insurance or public insurance such as Medicaid are more likely than those covered by other insurance to be overweight, according to a 2003 study.