NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Big Food and Bigger People

February 26, 2003

Obesity and its attendant sedentary lifestyle result in 300,000 premature deaths annually, a toll second only to the early mortality figure attributed to smoking. In addition, the annual costs of medical treatment for obesity have been estimated at nearly $100 billion. And the prevalence of obesity continues to increase.

For these reasons, a recent study attempted to determine the root economic causes of the obesity epidemic. Among its findings:

  • The increase in the incidence of obesity and the doubling of the per capita number of fast-food restaurants between 1972 and 1997 are related phenomena.
  • The trend is also associated with the increased labor force partication of women since 1970 and and with the increased value of time in regard to both work and leisure.
  • More time devoted to work and less time devoted to the labor-intensive activity of food preparation in the home favors the low cost and convenience of fast food and prepared food.

These foods have extremely high caloric density, are satisfying and habit forming and they almost certainly contribute to the obesity epidemic. Obesity is most prevalent in those sectors of the workforce where average real incomes have fallen and more hours are devoted to work -- chiefly, low-end wage earners, women and non-whites.

Food prepared in the home is nominally cheaper than purchasing food in restaurants. But in view of the value of time that must be devoted to shopping and cooking, as compared to the high-calorie, low-cost, mass-production meals available at ever-increasingly convenient locations (with ever diminishing travel and waiting time), the fast-food option appears to make good economic, if not health, sense.

Source: Matt Nesvisky, "An Economic Analysis Of Adult Obesity," NBER Digest, February 2003; based on Shin-Yi Chou, Henry Saffer and Michael Grossman, "An Economic Analysis of Adult Obesity: Results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System," NBER Working Paper No. 9247, National Bureau of Economic Research.

For NBER text


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