Female Portrait

The Fuzzy Relationship Between Income and Obesity

Increasingly, the world has two problems that should not go together: persistent high levels of food insecurity and growing rates of obesity. How can this be? The short answer is that there’s no short answer. Food insecurity is largely a function of income and, in wealthier countries, poverty can mean a higher risk for obesity. But is the relationship between poverty and obesity one of  cause and effect? No. It is the result of social systems and policy choices, as Avenel Joseph and Megan Lott explain in The Hill:

“These high rates [for obesity and food insecurity] have been the norm for so long that they may appear inevitable. They are not. Our policy choices have brought us here, but they can also chart a different path.

“Food insecurity is closely tied to poverty, and higher obesity rates increase the risk for many chronic health conditions. No child or family should suffer these consequences, but we have not done nearly enough to prevent them.”

A Deep Dive into Economic Analysis

In the Journal of Economic Surveys, Nathalie Mathieu-Bolh offers an exhaustive analysis of what we know about the relationship between obesity and income. She explains:

“Poverty seems to be connected to obesity in rich countries. However, a deeper study of the empirical literature suggests that the link between income and obesity is more complex, as it can be negative or positive, or changes when countries develop over time.”

She suggests that something like a Kuznets curve might be at work in the relationship between obesity and income. When economic development grows, the early phases of this growth can lead to steady increases in food calories. But, she suggests, that as it continues, high income earners may begin to shift away from energy dense and nutrient poor diets. Thus, disparities emerge, based on income, in the risk of obesity.

Better Policy Choices

The core problem that ties obesity risk to income is social and economic policies that discount the health and well-being of people with less income. Pollution is higher where they live. Opportunities for healthy, active lives are less. Superficial approaches to solving this problem don’t have much impact. Giving entrepreneurs money to build supermarkets in food deserts has little or no effect. Soda taxes might have an effect on the beverages people buy and where they buy them, but they’ve done little to reduce the disparities in obesity. Educating and urging people to eat healthy and move more hasn’t done much to move the needle either.

So we need to dig a little deeper – into the economic systems that create systemic disparities in health and well-being. It should not be that wealth is the only ticket to a healthy life.

Click here for the Mathieu-Bolh analysis and here for the commentary by Joseph and Lott.

Female Portrait, painting by Oleksandr Bogomazov / WikiArt

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December 11, 2021

One Response to “The Fuzzy Relationship Between Income and Obesity”

  1. December 11, 2021 at 3:52 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Unfortunately wealth and presumably the food security that comes with wealth does not protect against the disease obesity. Obesity may be more common in some socio-economic groups, but it is an equal opportunity disease. Until we understand better what causes the dysfunction of the energy regulatory system in each person, we are in a pickle. Ask Chis Christie or Oprah Winfrey how protective money is.