The single biggest predictor of obesity is low income

This evening I watched the documentary, Food, Inc., which exposes huge flaws in our food system and explains why unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food (see this in-depth post).

Fast Food for Fast Living, by Imaging Dissent, on flickr

Somewhere near the middle of the documentary, they flashed the statement, “the largest predictor of obesity is low income” and it made a lightbulb go on in my head.   Was it true?   I immediately logged onto my university library website and did some research, to confirm if there was actual evidence to support this theory.  There is, and, in fact, there is so much and it is so conclusive that it is disturbing I hadn’t heard of it before (see here for lots of links).

We often look at overweight or obese people with condescension, mainly because we think that being overweight is caused by a lack of willpower (see this forum discussion).  But is it really?  And if a lack of will-power is involved, then what causes this lack of will-power?

One might ask, does a child choose to be born to an unmarried mother?  In general, do people choose to be poor?  Do they choose to be uneducated?  Can will-power alone change these things?  Metaphysical murmurings aside, the answer to these questions is obviously ‘no’.

My journey to healthful eating

I grew up with a single mother and I can tell you that if Walmart had been around when I was a child, my mother would have done all her grocery shopping there, in order to pinch our pennies.  A quick look in any Walmart ‘grocery’ aisle will clearly show you a multitude of extremely cheap, heavily processed, high-energy, low-nutrition ‘foods’.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a Walmart when I was a child, but there was still plenty of 5/$1.00 mac&cheese, .10 cent ichiban, canned soups, canned ravioli, and wonder(fully-nutrition-less)bread.  Treats consisted of fast food (my fav was the .99 cent sausage mcmuffin with 21 grams of fat) and anything involving hamburger meat, which was never lean, as far as I’m aware of.

All of this changed when I was 18 and my adventurous friend, Aimee, convinced me to go with her to a Hemp Festival in Eugene, Oregon.  I met a young man there–a wandering dead-head named Orion–and for three days, we were inseparable; I ate what he ate, much of which I’d never heard of before: kelp, sprouts, lentils, and things like that.  Everyone walked around that festival calling each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and for one of the first times in my life, I felt accepted–even though I was chubby, and obviously not a hippy.  I returned to Canada from that festival with a hemp bracelet, crystals of all varieties, body odor, hairy armpits, far fewer brain-cells, far more self-esteem, and a decision to become a vegetarian.  The idealistic peace & love feelings faded after a few months, but the Age of Vegetarianism lasted about 7 years for me (til I was 25 and my roommate caught me sneaking a chicken thigh from the simmering pot on the stove!).

Becoming a vegetarian was such an invaluable, life-changing experience for me, for one specific reason: half the crap I had been eating my entire life was off-limits.  I had to completely retrain my tastebuds, learn how to cook for myself (half the restaurants back then didn’t have veggie options), and figure out what a complete protein was, which I learned was essential when my hair started falling out about 6 months AV.

Many years later, I still struggle with eating healthy, and avoiding the pitfalls of ‘cheap’ food.  I do know that it is possible to eat nutritious meals on a tight budget (rice and beans are probably the cheapest meal around), but it does take time, education, effort and planning, which might not be available to lower-income people.

If you had a similar childhood full of junk-food, what or who inspired and educated you to become a more healthful eater?  If you’d like to learn more about this issue, please continue reading the research that I’ve collected, organized and summarized for you below.

The Evidence

The following evidence is here because my research on forums and blogs indicated that most people, it seems, just want to believe that lack of will-power is the main predictor of obesity.  I think this not only disempowers the lower classes even further, but it’s also an ignorant belief based on fear.

After reading these, please give me your informed opinion–has it changed after reading this post?  Chances are, if you are reading this post, you are not poor or uneducated, so consider that, and be compassionate.

Wider Income Gaps, Wider Waistbands?  An Ecological Study of Obesity and Income Inequality

The abstract for this article can be found here.

This study by Pickett et al., published in 2005, studied 21 developed countries and used United Nations data to analyze whether living in a culture with a large gap between the rich and poor, would be correlated to increased obesity.

The results indicated a correlation between the two factors (.48 for men, and .62 for women), and the authors stated, “The psychosocial effects of social position or relative income may contribute to behavioural and/or physiological processes leading to obesity.” As well as, “Increased nutritional problems may be a consequence of the psychosocial impact of living in a more hierarchical society.”

The graph of their correlations is telling, so I included it.  See the USA all by itself in the upper right corner? That means it has both the largest gap between the rich and the poor and the largest occurrence of obesity.

Correlations between Obesity and Income Disparity

Obesity in Low-Income Communities: Prevalence, Effects, a Place to Begin

A link to buy the article is here.

This literature review by Marilyn S. Townsend, published in 2005, gathered evidence from many studies done and gave 2 strong reasons for why low-income communities in the USA suffer with much higher rates of obesity:

  1. compared with middle-income communities, food insecurity plagues many low-income communities, and food insecurity has been shown to be positively associated with overweight among women
  2. the majority of food stamp recipients live in low-income communities. Preliminary research has found a positive relationship between women’s Food Stamp Program participation and their body weight

Educational Level, Relative Body Weight, and Changes in Their Association Over 10 Years

Abstract available here.

This paper published in 2000, by Molarius et al., concludes: “Lower education was associated with higher BMI in about half of the male, and in almost all of the female populations, and the differences in relative body  weight between educational levels increased over the study period.  Thus, socioeconomic inequality in health consequences of obesity may increase in many countries.”

More Research Links

Some interesting blogs and newspaper articles:

  • New York Times article that argues that healthy food can be inexpensive
  • New York Times article that explores research done at the University of Washington that shows how unhealthy food is more expensive
  • Here is a discussion on Inspire, where people give their opinions on the matter and discuss whether they think its true or not, that healthy food is more expensive.
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7 Responses to The single biggest predictor of obesity is low income

  1. Robby says:

    Wow, thanks so much for this great post! I struggled with my weight and was inspired to eat healthier by shows i saw on tv, like biggest loser.
    u can eat healthy, but it can really be difficult and you DO need will-power, but other thigns too,

  2. Erin says:

    I’m surprised that I didn’t know that either.
    My journey to healthy eating was similar to yours, with a bit less of a junk-foody beginning. And my family probably had a bit higher income than yours. So.
    Also, the google ad for cosmetic weight loss surgery at the end of this post is hilarious.

    • Shalon says:

      I’m not in charge of the ads they put up on the site… I didn’t even know there were ads.

      Thanks for the comments!

  3. Rebecca says:

    Hey Shalon: great article! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Mike says:

    Shalon, so, so, so right. The links between diet and wealth are so strong, it’s a wonder that the myth of fat = greed and sloth lives on. It becomes even more controversial when you see that in the US black women
    are shrinking in height…
    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2008-12-25/news/0812240595_1_black-women-john-komlos-taller
    … except in higher socio-economic groups.

  5. Jewel says:

    Thanks, Shalon!! Great post!

  6. Pingback: Fat Tax Combats Obesity and Makes Cents « Caution: Economics Students at Work

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