The Obesity Epidemic

Rod asks why Americans have off-the-charts obesity rates and concludes that the main reasons have to do with poverty. In particular, healthy food costs a lot more than unhealthy food, so low-income Americans eat junk food to be able to pay for rent and health insurance.

I remember that when I lived in the US, I was shocked to notice how much more expensive fruit and vegetables were. One kilo of oreos costs less than a kilo of grapes! Very weird! At the time I thought that the price discrepancy was due to the fact that I was living in Pasadena (a fairly wealthy city in Southern California). To make it worse, I had no car (how “European” of me!) and no bike, so I had to walk to the super market… and of course I walked to the nearest one, which was at the “boundary line” (aka: East California Blvd.) dividing Pasadena and San Marino (another wealthy city, so I was told), and therefore I was paying a sort of “tax” for shopping in a fancy neighborhood. I didn’t really have a choice. There was a fruit and vegetables market in Pasadena, every Sunday or so, but it was a bit far (5 miles is a bit far when you have to walk). STILL, I can’t live without a regular intake of grapes, peaches and apples, so I didn’t care much about paying the so-called “tax” for fruit and vegetables.

HOWEVER, it was shocking to realize that in the campus dining hall where I usually had lunch a small fruit-salad bowl could cost 5 bucks! 5 bucks! “The whole world has gone insane!”, I must have thought at the time, “a pizza costs pretty much the same as a fruit-salad bowl? And a greasy burger costs less than that? Weird!” How come a fruit-salad bowl costs THAT much!? The only possible explanation I could find was that fruit was considered a luxury “good”, and therefore its price was greatly inflated. This would have been even more shocking for a Brazilian, since that in Brazil fruit and vegetables are, in general, much better quality than in Europe (fruit is, at least), and they’re also ridiculously cheap indeed! I remember that a Brazilian friend of mine, a great guy from Rio, would go to the “fruit and vegetables” Pasadena market every Sunday, and he brought loads and loads of stuff. He had a bike, you see…

There are several reasons why healthy food is hard to find in the United States for most people. First, as Rod notes, walking distances to grocery stores are outrageous outside very compact cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco. In these cities, where it’s relatively easy to get to grocery stores and with them non-crap food, obesity rates are barely above French or Italian levels (in New York they’re slightly below US average, but in Manhattan they’re far below).

For further evidence that this matters, look at patterns of which areas have the most obesity. In Canada, obesity is highest in rural areas and lowest in large metropolitan areas. In the Southern US, where cities have far higher poverty rates and are more car-dependent, obesity is lowest in the suburbs and equally high in cities and rural areas. Moreover, in the US more liberal states, which tend to be slightly more pedestrian-friendly, tend to have lower obesity rates than more conservative states.

There are two more problems that likely contribute to the USA’s insane obesity rate, of which one is again related to the price of fruit. Almost every developed country heavily subsidizes its agriculture; however, while Europe and Japan subsidize a wide variety of crops, the US concentrates on giving aid to corn, which is why its corn production is off the charts.

Since Americans can’t actually eat 280 million tons of corn annually, even when they feed excess yields to animals, American agribusinesses look for creative ways to dump corn wherever possible – for example, by replacing sugar with corn syrup in coke. Corn syrup isn’t any more healthy or tasty, but Uncle Sam foots the bill for it. If it were possible to load fruit and vegetables with excess corn, they’d be cheap, too.

Of course, pizzas don’t necessarily have corn; however, they use cheese derived from milk from cows that ate subsidized corn. While corn isn’t the sole culprit, it’s the largest one. Sugar crops and hog farms receive outrageous subsidies, too, but to a lesser extent than Iowa’s corn.

The problem that doesn’t have much to do with fruit prices is culture. This is related to both eating and exercising: American eating culture is lusher than most European countries’ eating cultures, and American commuting culture is car-friendlier than all European countries’.

American restaurants usually have larger main courses, greater selections of red meat, and larger portions of side dishes than French restaurants. The most common steak at a French restaurant is the relatively fat-free filet mignon, and a typical serving has about 200 grams; the most common steak at an American restaurant is the sirloin, with serving sizes closer to 300 grams.

I haven’t been able to find statistics for distance walked in the US, but in Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock notes that Americans walk very little, at least by New York standards, and limits his walking distance accordingly. In Britain, the government has suggested the reduction in the distance walked by residents in the last 20 years as one factor behind the country’s growing obesity rate.

Ezra and Zuzu have posts linking to a not especially bright article arguing that the obesity epidemic is a myth. Nonsense. The argument that skyrocketing rates of obesity are fine because what matters is not weight but a sedentary lifestyle only works if people are compensating for their higher weights by exercising more. The loopiest part of the article is,

Obesity research in the United States is almost wholly funded by the weight-loss industry. For all the government’s apparent interest in the fat “epidemic,” in recent years less than 1 percent of the federal health research budget has gone toward obesity-related research. (For example, in 1995, the National Institutes of Health spent $87 million on obesity research out of a total budget of $11.3 billion.) And, while it’s virtually impossible to determine just how much the dieting industry spends on such research, it is safe to say that it is many, many times more. Indeed, many of the nation’s most prominent obesity researchers have direct financial stakes in companies that produce weight-loss products.

The gold standard of corporate-influenced research is tobacco risks. In the case of tobacoo, people have done meta-analyses of studies underwritten by governments or nonprofits and compared them to studies underwritten by tobacco companies. Those funded by tobacco companies were likely to exculpate cigarettes, while those not funded by big tobacco were likely to note a link between smoking and lung cancer. No such distinction is being made in this case.

If you think all American studies are irreparably biased, then go to other countries. The BBC quotes a governmental study that concludes that in 1998, obesity caused 30,000 premature deaths in England, and could cost the economy £3.5 billion a year by 2010. It also quotes a separate study by the British Heart Foundation, which estimates that 28,000 heart attacks in Britain each year are attributable to obesity.

3 Responses to The Obesity Epidemic

  1. Bushbaptist says:

    Interesting points Alon. We have a prob with obesity here too but it doesn’t appear related to subsidies, more to do with poverty. Low income earners here tend to use stomach stuffers because they are cheap (purely anecdotal I must add) and there is a greater prob with obesity in the lower socio-economic areas than the wealthier places.
    There is also another point I must raise here: there has been a quantum shift in work habits over the last 20yrs or so. Prior to that about 80% of the workforce worked in jobs that required much physical effort. So, they could eat a high carb diet and then burn it off the next day. Today we tend to sit all day tapping keyboards. The machines we have now to make our work easier also makes us lazy.

  2. SLC says:

    Relative to poverty being a cause of obesity, I have to say that I see plenty of fat people shopping in Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Wegmans which are not known as cheap places.

  3. Greg Todd says:

    Obesity epidemic a myth? What planet are they on? This is an excellent article. I’m writing about obesity and health as I document my attempt to lose 100 pounds online, and this post has some great info.

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