In some places, especially those stricken with poverty, obesity is a symbol of wealth. While the poor toil away usually with extreme malnutrition and starvation, the wealthy class is free to consume endlessly. This over-consumption promotes obesity. Usually, therefore, the obese in these locations are associated with wealth.

With the United State’s amazing prosperity, one is not so surprised to learn that the U.S. is the fattest nation with the highest obesity rates. We can afford copious amounts of food. Technology has enabled us to live sedentary lifestyles. Advances in medicine have allowed obese people to survive longer. Today, somewhere around 26% of the U.S. population is obese, with many more being overweight (but not obese). With one in four Americans being obese, there are tremendous economic implications, not only for the individual in question but also for the nation as a whole. The literature on obesity, particularly as it relates to economics, is immense and nuanced, and I cannot even begin to deal with it all.

Obesity is on the rise worldwide. It seems as the wealth grows across the globe, people all over are becoming obese. After all, the United States is the most obese nation. Likewise, one should expect the wealthiest states to be the most obese. However, that is not the case. Mississippi, which has the highest rate of obesity at 32.5% is also the poorest state with a GDP per capita of $28,541. The second most poorest state, West Virginia, with a GDP per capita of $29,385 has the third highest rate of obesity. When analyzing the data, one finds a trend that shows a negative relationship between GDP per capita and obesity rates:

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(Data on state-level GDP per capita (2007) was provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Data on obesity rates was provided by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

This data suggests poor people are obese at higher rates than wealthy people. My analysis is rudimentary, but there is plenty of other research to support this claim. One reason may be because poor people have less choices than their wealthy counterparts. Poor people, for example, find it more difficult to afford gym memberships. They may also be unable to find as much time in their schedules to exercise. Additionally, nutritiously lacking foods filled with plenty of calories from sugars and fats tend to be cheaper than healthier foods. Research by Adam Drewnowski of the University of Washington helps explain why this is. Simply: Thank the government. U.S. subsidies have been promoting the overproduction of certain agricultural products such as corn, soybeans, and wheat. This is happening while other fresh produce and fruits are being left to the wayside. This is why you can walk into a grocery store and find that one dollar will buy you 1,200 calories from unhealthy foods like cookies and chips but only 250 calories from carrots. This is why the real price of vegetables and fruits has increased 40% between 1985 and 2000, while the price for soft drinks (which use a high amount of subsidized corn syrup) have declined 23% (sugar, too, receives large amount of government support).

The issue isn’t so simple though. While the U.S. has the highest rate of obesity, the second highest rate of obesity in the world is found in Mexico, which is a substantially poorer than the U.S. On the other hand, places like South Korea and Japan, which are relatively rich and developed nations, have among the lowest rates of obesity. Quite clearly, there are other factors at play that should be considered.

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