The Economy Makes Us Fat
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:
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.