NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Economic Causes Of Obesity

September 26, 2002

Obesity has serious economic consequences because of its impact on labor supply and health care. Body weight is itself influenced by economic variables, often in complex ways.

Some economists argue that there are two distinct economic drivers of body weight: a supply-side effect caused by higher incomes and lower food prices, and a demand-side effect caused by the increasingly sedentary nature of work.

  • Rich countries tend to have relatively low food prices and more sedentary jobs than do poor countries, making them fatter on average.
  • But within rich countries, everyone faces the same food prices and similar technology, so differences in weight are influenced by other factors, like education and income.
  • More schooling tends to reduce weight, by a relatively modest amount.
  • Being black or Hispanic tends to increase weight, by a quite significant amount.
  • Being in a sedentary occupation for a year leads to a small increase in weight; but staying in that occupation for 14 years causes a significant increase.

The weight gain over the last century is equivalent to a 30-pound gain for a 6-foot man. But only in the last 10 years have the calories per person per day climbed significantly over 1909 levels. This suggests that most of the weight increase is due to too little exercise, not too many calories.

Using Bureau of Labor Statistics ratings of occupations by how physically strenuous they are, economists were able to determine the average amount of exercise associated with each person.

They found that about 40 percent of the growth in weight in the last 20 years has been caused by the increased supply of food and 60 percent by the increase in sedentary employment.

Source: Hal R. Varian, "Employment and Prosperity Affect Body Inflation," New York Times, September 26, 2002; Darius Lakdawalla and Tomas Philipson, "The Growth of Obesity and Technological Change," Working Paper No. 8946, May 2002, National Bureau of Economic Research.

For NBER abstract


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