Obesity & Income

The highest rates of obesity in the United States are found amongst lower-income groups

The highest rates of obesity in the United States are found amongst lower-income groups

For one moment put aside genetics, medical conditions  and a lack of physical exercise to just imagine that your income could predispose you to become obese. It’s a frightening thought that in a well educated and resourceful country, residents might be physiologically doomed just by their occupying a certain socioeconomic position.

In the United States, the highest rates of obesity and diabetes are found within lower-income groups. Why? The plausible explanation is because of a lack of money. Unhealthy foods are not only cheap but are extremely energy-dense; this means that less of them are needed to produce the same energy compared to healthy foods. However, studies have proved these energy-dense foods to be less satiating than fresh nutritious foods, resulting in passive overeating and a higher risk of obesity.

Fast food, sweets, desserts and sweetened soft drinks have continuously been linked to obesity, so why are they still consumed, and on a massive scale? Unhealthy and processed foods are widespread for three reasons: they’re inexpensive, tasty and convenient. Healthy and nutritious foods such as fresh meats & fish, fruits and vegetables can be expensive to purchase and often difficult to source.

The consumption of unhealthy foods has also been linked to individual factors such as emotional state, personality and stress levels, however the underlying problem is a far more universal one.  Economics is at the heart of the obesity-poverty relationship for two main reasons. Firstly, because low-income groups predominantly buy cheap and concentrated forms of energy i.e. fat and sugar which contribute to obesity. Secondly, as low-income groups are also more likely to reside within areas with less access to fresh and healthy produce.

The current solution is to inform and encourage the eating of healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables. There has been no attempt to address the serious and underlying issue that greatly contributes to higher rates of obesity: cost. What use is the knowledge that people should eat healthier, if they cannot afford to do so?

Perhaps focus should be moved towards changing the economy of obesity given that the evidence has suggests obesity rates do in fact conform to a socioeconomic gradient.  A more effective solution to tackle the growing problem of obesity would be the widespread implementation of policies that make healthy foods affordable and accessible to all consumers.

How? Agricultural development, government subsidiaries, consumer education and price regulation are just a few ideas.

References:

Drewnowski, A &Darmon, N. (2005) The economics of obesity: dietary energy density and energy cost. American Journal Clinical Nutrition 82: 1 265S-273S

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