NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Gaining Weight

April 23, 2003

It is just about impossible to avoid the evidence that obesity has become a serious societal health problem. The view that fast food restaurants are legally responsible for this problem and should pay damages to the obese is ridiculous, says Bruce Bartlett.

However, the idea that there is a correlation between fast food and obesity does have a basis in fact:

  • Economists Shin-Yi Chou, Henry Saffer and Michael Grossman found that the increase in fast food restaurants between 1972 and 1997 is related to the growth of obesity.
  • But their paper shows that both fast food and obesity are really consequences of deep underlying trends in the economy.
  • These include an increase in the number of working women and decline in stay-at-home moms, the increased amount of time devoted to work by both men and women, and the decline in smoking, among other things.

One of the curious consequences of these trends is that the poor are now more likely to be obese than the wealthy. Indeed, obesity is now a problem in developing countries where starvation was the norm not too many years ago, according to the World Health Organization.

The poor live on low-cost but highly fattening carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta, while the rich can afford the Atkins Diet, which is based on eating costly meat, fish and other high-protein foods. The former are also more likely to engage in sedentary lifestyles, while the latter are busy burning calories at expensive gyms or on their own high-tech exercise equipment. And the rich can afford the time to eat slow food instead of fast food.

Throughout most of world history, obesity was a sign of wealth and thinness a sign of poverty. In the future, the opposite may be the case.

 

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