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Obesity - from an economic perspective
I recently read two articles on the increase in obesity in the United States
from an economic analysis perspective. Since my educational background is mostly
in food science and human nutrition, the papers offered new perspectives for me
- Technological advances in agriculture allowed for mass production of
affordable food. Without this technology, population-obesity would not be
- The increase in body mass index over time appears to be linked to the
decrease in the strenuousness of physical activity in the workplace. In an
agricultural or industrial society, workers are paid to be physically
active. In a post-industrialized society, people pay for an opportunity to
be physically active (gym fees, golf club memberships, aerobic classes,
- In recent decades, more household time goes to the labor force. Labor
force participation of married women was 62% in 1998 compared to 41%
in 1970. Time is often the scarce resource for families and
individuals. This has stimulated a demand for convenient fast foods.
Fast foods are then made more palatable by increases in caloric density
(fats and sugars are added).
- There is strong evidence that the steady increase in fast-food restaurants
parallels the increase in obesity rates in populations. A literal
interpretation of this observation may blame the fast-food restaurant
industry for obesity. The authors offer a different interpretation that
suggests fast-food restaurants emerged in response to a demand for
convenient, palatable, low-cost food.
- The aggressive non-smoking campaign may have produced unwanted
consequences. Smokers have higher metabolic rates than non-smokers and
consume fewer calories. People who quit smoking usually gain weight. The
decrease in smoking may be one piece of the obesity puzzle. This interesting
observation should cause us to challenge our belief that all increases in
weight gain result from negative lifestyle changes such as less physical
activity and over-consumption of food.
- The idea that obesity impairs health and longevity has been widely
disseminated since the 1960's. Numerous educational programs have promoted
better diet and more exercise to reduce obesity. Any yet, obesity rates
continue to rise. Lack of information does not appear to be the problem.
Everyone knows how to lose weight (you eat less, exercise more, or do
both). The problem is not one of information/knowledge but of
preferences/incentives and changes in technology.
- Example 1: I prefer my higher-paying sedentary job to a more
physically demanding one that pays less.
- Example 2: The message of eat less/exercise more is somehow lost in
an environment that offers more and more food to eat and new ways each
year to be less physically active.
- Example 3: I know I should be more physically active, but I like
going home where I push a button to open the garage door, push a button
to lock the car, push a button to turn on the TV, and push a button on a
microwave to heat my dinner.
"An economic analysis of adult obesity: Results from the Behavioral Risk
Factor Surveillance System," Chou, Grossman and Saffer, - paper presented
at the Third International Economics Association Conference, York, England, July
"The long-run growth in obesity as a function of technological
change," Philipson, Posner, working paper 7423, National Bureau of Economic
Research, November 1999, http://www.nber.org/papers/w7423.
Compiled by Betty Holmes, MS, RD
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