Wal-Mart Supercenter

Shall We Blame Walmart for Obesity?

Bloomberg: Economics of Weight GainVillains are useful. A genuine, identifiable villain causing a problem can mobilize people to correct the problem. With obesity, we have lots of phantom villains. Another candidate popped up this week in a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Should we blame Walmart for obesity?

Charles Courtemanche and colleagues built a comprehensive model of body weight that explains almost 60% of the rise in more severe forms of obesity (Class 2 & 3). They find that the density of restaurants, supercenters, and warehouse clubs are “primary drivers of the results.” Says Courtemanche:

We live in an environment with increasingly cheap and readily available junk food. We buy in bulk. We tend to have more food around. It takes more and more discipline and self-control to not let that influence your weight.

As usual in the business of tracking down obesity villains, these data have limitations. Causality remains to be proven. It’s entirely possible that more supercenters, clubs, and restaurants are the result, not the cause of growing obesity prevalence. And unfortunately, the model is built on self-reported height and weight data that are deeply flawed.

What is useful here is the notion that we’re doing a poor job of adapting to prosperity — if we can call it that. Abundance, delivered in warehouse clubs and generous restaurant portions, doesn’t work well with our bodies and brains that are built for scarcity.

Shining a light on this fact might lead the co-conspirators to change. Reacting to a story about this study, Walmart spokesperson Tara Greco pointed out:

Four years ago, Walmart unveiled a comprehensive effort to provide its customers with healthier and more affordable food choices. Since then, the company has made significant progress in product reformulation, building stores in food deserts and providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as increasing charitable support for nutrition programs that help educate consumers about healthier food solutions and choices.

Will it help?

Click here to read the study, here to read more from the Washington Post, and here to read more from BloombergBusiness.

Walmart Supercenter, photograph © Dystopos / flickr

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