Shopping for Obesity

By shopping for food in huge quantities at supercenters and wharehouse clubs, are we shopping for obesity? New York Times commentator Frank Bruni seems to think so. Research on the relationship between food production and distribution bears careful consideration as we think about this deceptively simple proposition.

NIH scientists Carson Chow and Kevin Hall attracted a great deal of attention last year with presentations of their work on a mathematical model of the obesity epidemic. Asked if they could determine the cause of the epidemic from this work, Chow said:

We think so. And it’s something very simple, very obvious, something that few want to hear: The epidemic was caused by the overproduction of food in the United States.

Beginning in the 1970s, there was a change in national agricultural policy. Instead of the government paying farmers not to engage in full production, as was the practice, they were encouraged to grow as much food as they could. At the same time, technological changes and the “green revolution” made our farms much more productive. The price of food plummeted, while the number of calories available to the average American grew by about 1,000 a day.

Well, what do people do when there is extra food around? They eat it!

Regarding the availability of extra food, distribution is also important. That’s where the supercenters and warehouse clubs enter the picture. In research just presented at the annual meeting of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, Xun Li and Rigoberto Lopez found that warehouse clubs and supercenters were associated with weight gain in the communities they serve.

Likewise, economists Charles Courtemanche and Art Carden have found a link between the proliferation of supercenters and higher BMI in the communities they serve.

All of this brings us to Bruni’s proposition:

Costco as much as anything else is why the land of the free and the home of the brave is also the trough of the tub o’ lard, our exceptionalism measurable by not only our GDP but also our BMI That’s body mass index, and our bodies are indeed massive. I don’t blame Costco per se. I blame what it represents.

And if that’s not enough, he goes on to say:

The examination of how and why we overeat is like some full-employment scheme for physicians, nutritionists, scientists and professors … but these experts haven’t brought us clarity.

His critique is worth considering. When experts don’t provide clarity, charlatans gladly do.

Click here to read Bruni’s commentary, click here to read an interview with Carson Chow, click here for a presentation by Kevin Hall, click here for the paper by Li and Lopez, and click here for the paper by Courtemanche and Carden.

Shopping Cart Bokeh, photograph © Eric Martin / flickr

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