Not Exactly: The Wobbly Link of Poverty to Obesity

Conventional wisdom promotes a strong link of poverty to obesity in the U.S. Not so fast, says the data. In fact, this link is a bit wobbly and explained best by considering by gender, race, and ethnicity.

Income and Obesity

It turns out that poverty and obesity are linked in women, but not in men. And the the link is significant only for non-hispanic white women. For non-Hispanic black women and Mexican-American women there’s a hint of a trend, but no significance.

In men, the picture is very different. For non-Hispanic white men, the relationship is nil. For non-Hispanic black men and Mexican-American men, it’s reversed — poverty is significantly associated with a lower obesity rate.

In Canada, Nathalie Dumas found higher incomes for men linked to more obesity, and no consistent relationship for women. To make sense of the data, factoring in education was important, she found.

None of these facts get in the way of a good story that someone wants to tell. In the political fight over food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), an undercurrent of resentment flows around an assumption that SNAP fuels obesity. The Washington Post recently ran a detailed story proclaiming that “a diet fueled by food stamps is making south Texans obese but leaving them hungry.”

Likewise, legislators regularly find themselves in hot water when they blurt out something about those people on food stamps with obesity. Oklahoma representative Markwayne Mullin provided one such example recently. He told the story of people using SNAP who looked so healthy that it must have been “fraud — absolute, 100% all it is is fraud.”

Why do people stay hooked on these narratives, even when the facts prove them wrong? A good story is fun. Facts are less so. The sweet spot is a compelling story that’s backed by the facts.

So if you’re going to hang onto a generalization, make it this one: all generalizations are dangerous.

Click here to read more about the relationship between income and obesity in the Atlantic. Click here to read the CDC report on the subject, click here to read more about the Canadian analysis by Dumas, and click here to read more from the Food Research and Action Center,

Rich and Poor, 17th-century anonymous Flemish painting from Museum der Brotkultur, Ulm / Wikimedia

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