Social Status: Cause or Effect of Obesity?

Could a rigged game of Monopoly give us insight into the complicated relationship between social status and obesity? Michelle Cardel and colleagues have published a new study in Physiology and Behavior that does precisely that.

Mickey Stunkard first published landmark work on social factors and obesity more than 50 years ago. As Greg Pavella and colleagues described recently, Stunkard’s work led to innumerable studies documenting a relationship between obesity and socioeconomic status. Obesity prevalence rises with a nation’s economic development. But as the wealth of a country rises, the relationship between obesity and social status changes. In low-income countries, obesity is associated more with wealth. In high income countries, obesity is more common with lower economic and social status.

The question remains: why is this so? To gain insight, Cardel and colleagues conducted a small, elegant experiment with young Hispanic adults to test their response to a high or low social status in a rigged game of Monopoly. The study was a randomized, controlled crossover design. When assigned to a low status in the game, the subjects felt less pride and a diminished sense of personal power than in a high status position. They ate more calories in a buffet served after the game — a significantly higher proportion of their daily caloric requirements.

This is just one more piece of the puzzle in a very complex relationship between social status and obesity. Though it’s a very small study of short duration, it does point to a possible mechanism of cause and effect between low social status and obesity.

Much work remains to fully understand why social status, economic disparities, and the related phenomenon of food insecurity seem to play a role in obesity risk. It’s heartening to see smart scientists moving beyond simple observational studies into experimental work that can provide some deeper answers.

Click here to read the study, here to read more on how obesity relates to socioeconomic status, and here to read further about the development of this knowledge base.

Money! Photograph © Thomas Galvez / flickr

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April 25, 2016

3 Responses to “Social Status: Cause or Effect of Obesity?”

  1. April 25, 2016 at 11:34 am, Allen Browne said:

    Good commentary today – both content and method.

  2. April 25, 2016 at 1:05 pm, Adam Tsai said:

    What an elegantly designed study. This is I think a very important result. Thank you Ted for posting it.

    • April 25, 2016 at 3:09 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Adam and Allen!