Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Economy Makes Us Fat

That headline is the one Newsweek uses, and it's the subtitle of a new book. But actually that's not accurate. Unless we're being force fed, overeatting is a choice. The question is, why are we overeatting? From the article:
Is a fatter population an inevitable consequence of an advanced economy? Health economist Eric Finkelstein, co-author of the new book "The Fattening of America" (John Wiley), thinks so. Thanks to economic advances, he argues, we spend more time on our butts—at the computer, in front of the TV, in the car—than our parents and grandparents did, and we spend less time in the kitchen making healthful meals or outdoors burning calories. And everywhere we go we're tempted by a growing array of cheap, high-calorie, fat- and sugar-laden treats. The result: nearly two-thirds of American adults now qualify as overweight or obese. [A similar proportion of the poor Americans are also obese.]
From the interview it's clear Finkelstein and I agree individuals are responsible for their own obesity, not the economy:
Worse choices?
Not from an economist's perspective. We're fatter, but that does not mean that we are worse off. We could do without the low-cost food or the new technology, but most Americans would prefer not to. The reason is that the costs of being thin, in terms of what they would have to forgo, have just gotten so high that people are saying "I'd rather be fat" than make the increasingly difficult sacrifices necessary to be thin.

What about the costs to our health of carrying around a lot of extra weight?
Our research suggests that, even with this knowledge, many people will still choose to be overweight. We found that overweight individuals are aware that their excess weight makes them more likely to get diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Employers could adapt some of those ideas to combating obesity in the workplace.
Employers should use the types of strategies that are profit-maximizing. After all, that is what most [companies] are in business to do. I would subsidize healthy food in the cafeteria, maybe even have a fitness center. It's a nice perk and a great way to attract young, healthy workers.

But you don't think implementing weight-loss programs makes sense economically?
In order to be a cost-saving program, employees would have to lose enough weight, keep it off long enough and stay with the company long enough so that the reduction in health-related costs would be borne by the company. In reality, people change jobs every five years on average, so these programs are unlikely to pay off for most firms.

People do want to lose weight and that's why they're willing to pay for diet advice, or pills or procedures. Some economists are even hoping to make money with the economics diet.

And here is a Freakonomics post on the economics of obesity.

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Blogger rosh said...

Happy New Year John - wish you the best for 2008!

12:27 PM  
Blogger bklyn_in_dubai said...

peter jennings did something very rare for a major network news org a couple of years ago -- he took a serious look at food. specifically, how subsidies for corn, soy and wheat are making us fatties, and making the poor disproportionately fat. while choice has a lot to do with it (many studies of portion size show that if you put food on a larger plate, we tend to eat more of it, we play video games rather than run around) economics has a big part to play too. fast foods, cokes, twinkies and other sweets and savory snacks are, economically speaking, unnaturally cheap because of high subsidies (in the US anyways). so it's a killer combo between these foods being appealing, and being cheap. the link to poverty is that in poorer neighborhoods, there tend to be fewer supermarkets, and they tend to not have as good a selection of fresh fruits and veggies. even in my gentrifying neighborhood in bklyn we only have one grocery store, not a very big one, within walking distance. not only is good food scarce, but is expensive relative to the bad stuff; that is, you get more calories for your buck by buying crappy junk food -- short term good choice, long term bad. subsidies come back into play -- no subsidies for fruits and veggies leads to them being more expensive items.

5:54 PM  

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