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Obesity vs. income?
March 11, 2008 11:18 PM   Subscribe

Is obesity actually rare among high-income people compared to low-income people? Or is this a stereotype? And if many high-income folks are in fact slim, does the availability of more wholesome foods really explain it all? One would think that a big bank account would buy pantries full of richer, tastier food that's harder to resist than the cheap stuff.
posted by tinkertown to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Generalisations here, but in well-developed countries the besides eating healthier, the wealthy have the time to work out, obsess over their body-image, and visit a dietitian/trainer. As for the less-fortunate, they're stuck with fast food/microwave dinners before sleeping/heading to work.

Of course in poorer countries, it's the opposite as the poorest are simply malnourished.

I also believe the traditional image of fat==wealth is disappearing with the Westernization of the world.
posted by hobbes at 11:27 PM on March 11, 2008


Income disparities in body mass index and obesity in the United States, 1971-2002.
CONCLUSION: The persistence and emergence of income gradients suggests that disparities in weight status are only partially attributable to poverty and that efforts aimed at reducing disparities need to consider a much broader array of contributing factors.
posted by Rumple at 11:55 PM on March 11, 2008


Fat used to signal success; nowadays the thin look is the look of success. Upcoming business people who want to look like go-getters want to be tall and lean. So it's partly a cultural shift. Besides, to get fat quickly, all you have to do is eat cheap fast food all the time and sit on front of the TV -- in other words, consume exclusively the cheapest forms of entertainment. A ski week-end in Colorado will not make you fat, and tastier, more expensive food tends to be a lot better for you. Fish and fresh vegetables make a healthy meal, cost more, and taste a lot better. In the more affluent suburbs you can go on long bike rides through woods and you can afford a good bike, etc. ...in short, it is not true that everything you like is bad for you. People with money can afford real pleasures, and these are often better for you as a whole; whereas people without money can only afford cheaper pleasures that are partly so cheap because they're so bad for you. -- In my opinion; I am not a sociologist.
posted by creasy boy at 12:40 AM on March 12, 2008


i'm sure i'm not the first person to suggest this, but i'm leaning towards the idea that there is a more fundamental reason for this trend than simply the fact that rich people are able to spend their money and time on things that make them thinner. i think our society is, on the whole, wealthy enough that almost all of us can afford to take care of our bodies.

however, the things that are required to stay fit -- diligence, hard work, sound choices and foresight -- are also the things (in the classic capitalist vision, anyway) that are required to get ahead financially. aren't they? maybe a person who watches TV instead of working out, or chooses to eat mcnuggets instead of a healthy home-cooked meal, will also choose to spend their time unconstructively rather than on things that can get them ahead in life, like education.

this is obviously a crass overgeneralization, as obviously not all rich people worked their way there, nor did all skinny people, not all poor people are slackers, and so on. i dont mean to offend any sensibilities. just suggesting that there may be a common cause for both situations, rather than a direct causal link.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 12:58 AM on March 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


When I was last in the states and really strapped for cash, I was gobsmacked at just *how* much cheaper it was to eat crap than to buy healthy food. It not just the "richer, tastier food" that is more expensive, its the fruit and vegetables and lean meat. You can buy a hell of a lot more shitty noodles and pizza and white bread for a couple of dollars than vegetables.

Plus the cheap food is so crappy and low in nutrients you tend to eat more calories just to give your body what it needs.

This has to be at least part of the answer.
posted by arha at 1:30 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Check this out. It's a book: Social Aspects of Obesity By I. de Garine, Nancy J. Pollock which addresses this issue and in the conclusion of the introduction (page xxix) states that rather than a lack of self-control, obesity seems to be caused by fattening procedures that are subject to social practices, often within ritual celebrations. The authors compare this to how smoking used to be a social practice and gradually became associated with health concerns. The references following should give you a good starting point for researching this issue. To decide that poor people are lazy, and rich people are thin and rich because they try harder is too facile.
posted by b33j at 1:56 AM on March 12, 2008


And that was the first google result for: obesity "upper class"
posted by b33j at 1:56 AM on March 12, 2008


When I was last in the states and really strapped for cash, I was gobsmacked at just *how* much cheaper it was to eat crap than to buy healthy food. It not just the "richer, tastier food" that is more expensive, its the fruit and vegetables and lean meat. You can buy a hell of a lot more shitty noodles and pizza and white bread for a couple of dollars than vegetables.

The thesis of the book Fatland is that staying thin and fit requires time and resources. One of the reasons is as you state - "crap food is cheap" - but there are others. If you're skating the edge of financial ruin, you have little time or energy for exercise or cooking right. Schools in more deprived areas are likely to have fewer sporting facilities, and they may have even sold off their playing fields. Poor areas have fewer parks and gyms. The wealthy can afford assistance (that while not essential is definitely helpful) like WeightWatchers meetings, meal plans, dieticians, gyms, exercises classes and equipment.

Of course there's more to it, and individual disposition and willpower will come into play. But the line still holds: it is easy for the poor to put on weight, and easier for the rich to lose it.
posted by outlier at 2:07 AM on March 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Research most recently by a University of Washington researcher has shown that the cheapest calories are by far and away the least healthy. It's got a lot to do with the US' inane Farm Bill that makes it really easy to put high-fructose corn syrup into just about everything. Obviously not the only factor, but a very big one.
posted by Nelsormensch at 4:34 AM on March 12, 2008


I think it's true that rich people have an easier time getting thin; I also think that thin people have an easier time getting rich not because of personality but because of size discrimination.
In a study conducted by Esther Rothblum, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Vermont, almost a third of women who weighed 20-49% above standard height/weight charts and almost two-thirds of women who weighed 50% or more above chart weights reported that they had faced discrimination in hiring because of their size. According to Rothblum, who is arguably the nation's top research on weight-related social stigma and discrimination, "The heavier people were, the more they reported that they couldn't get a job." Her study also found that, while heavier men also reported discrimination in hiring, women were discriminated against at a much lower relative weight. "Women don't have to weigh very much before discrimination kicks in," Rothblum notes.
posted by Jeanne at 4:37 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Look at the top most panel of this chart from the study Rumple linked to. What is interesting is that white women have a strong association of richer = thinner, but white men do not. If anything, white men at about the poverty line are thinner than men at two times the line. So it is an interaction of wealth (or income) and gender.
posted by shothotbot at 4:42 AM on March 12, 2008 [2 favorites]



There is some controversy over the link between farm subsidies (which support the cheap processed foods that arha noted) and obesity in the US, discussed here, here, and here(.pdf).
posted by zoel at 5:03 AM on March 12, 2008


There' s a trivial correlation between high income and healthy body. The most obvious reason is that ambitious people who care about personal development will feel that way towards all aspects of their lives. Probably the same people have more nicely polished shoes and a better hair cut. That doesn't mean polishing your shoes will lower your weight. Correlation != causation.

A caveat: I'm from a civilized country that offers free unlimited health care to any citizen. Your results may vary if poor people cannot actually afford to be treated if they choose to, like in Africa.
posted by Nightwind at 5:33 AM on March 12, 2008


One would think that a big bank account would buy pantries full of richer, tastier food that's harder to resist than the cheap stuff.

There was a much-derided book a few years back with the thesis that richer, tastier food is more satisfying and thus can be savored in small amounts. Cheaper, blander food had to be consumed in larger quantities and doused with unhealthy toppings/dressings/sauces to be as satisfying. I don't know how one really tests that argument, though.
posted by aswego at 6:05 AM on March 12, 2008


Try finding a Whole Foods or even a well-stocked supermarket in a low-income neighborhood. You're much more likely to find bodegas, delis, and fast food joints.

"In 1995, the University of Connecticut's Food Marketing Policy Center examined census and grocery store information for 21 major metropolitan areas across the United States. The study found there were 30 percent fewer supermarkets in low-income areas than in higher-income areas; it also found low-income consumers were less likely to possess automobiles, further limiting their access to food choices. The problem of unequal access to quality supermarket foods is more common in urban areas, though supermarket access is also an issue in poor rural areas."


It is definitely more expensive to eat well, and often this food isn't even available to people living in poverty. There are many organizations working to defeat this problem by providing financial incentives to grocery stores willing to build in low-income communities, or by bringing farm-fresh food into poorer neighborhoods.
posted by jrichards at 6:54 AM on March 12, 2008


No, it's not a myth that poor people in the US have higher obesity rates than the rich (although the rich are getting fatter than they used to be). In fact, poor people are less healthy on a whole set of measures than are rich people, both for environmental reasons and due to inadequacies in how we choose to provide health care. There have been a lot of articles in the New York Times in recent years on the topic, for example:

Heart attack is a window on the effects of class on health. The risk factors - smoking, poor diet, inactivity, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol and stress - are all more common among the less educated and less affluent, the same group that research has shown is less likely to receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation, to get emergency room care or to adhere to lifestyle changes after heart attacks. (source)

From a book review:

Poor people and some ethnic groups are, Glassner writes, disproportionately overweight, and during the decades when their obesity rates shot up, so did their rates of economic hardship and insecurity. As a result, more people had higher stress levels, causing the body to produce less of a growth hormone that reduces fat deposits and revs up metabolism even as it yields more “stress hormones” that “provoke cravings for soothing substances like glazed doughnuts and chocolate fudge ice cream.”

Poverty also leads to binge eating. Some weeks the fridge is empty, but when there’s enough money to fill it “the food-insecure” may eat too many calorie-rich indulgences.


The title alone of this article from 2000 is pretty stark: Rampant Obesity, a Debilitating Reality for the Urban Poor.

However, it's not only about class. As discussed above, gender plays a huge role, as do race and geography. Particularly when those factors intersect, obesity becomes strongly entrenched in subsets of the population.
posted by Forktine at 7:20 AM on March 12, 2008


If you're skating the edge of financial ruin, you have little time or energy for exercise or cooking right. Schools in more deprived areas are likely to have fewer sporting facilities, and they may have even sold off their playing fields. Poor areas have fewer parks and gyms.

let's not forget that in some poor areas, it might be so dangerous out that parents don't like their kids out at all.

I also think that now that cities are being re-gentrified, that the wealthy are the most likely to do all those Euro-urban things that American seem never to do, like walk. Other than Manhattan and a few other cities, that is simply not feasible, and you are less and less likely to be low-income in Manhattan. Same for pretty much every walkable trendy neighborhood in any US city you can name. So not only is it harder to exercise, not having a car and walking is becoming more and more unlikely the poorer you are.

but as many others have said, cheap starchy foods are cheap, and they are cheap because they are subsidized in a big way. And if you're poor, well it is a cheap thrill.
posted by xetere at 9:24 AM on March 12, 2008


You'll find a lot of relevant info if you google up info on the Food Stamp Challenge. A bunch of congress people and journalists committed to living on a food stamps budget of $21 per week, for a short period of time in 2007. Reading about their experiences trying to eat for that amount of money is pretty enlightening. One of the main themes that comes through is that you can't buy much fresh food on that kind of budget, not only because of the higher prices, but also because you can't risk letting anything spoil when your budget is so small. That means people end up buying a lot of starchy, salty, over-processed food, which can certainly lead to health problems including obesity.
posted by vytae at 9:57 AM on March 12, 2008


There was a much-derided book a few years back with the thesis that richer, tastier food is more satisfying and thus can be savored in small amounts. Cheaper, blander food had to be consumed in larger quantities and doused with unhealthy toppings/dressings/sauces to be as satisfying.

This is my experience. Think about it: You go to some fancy white tablecloth place and all the entrees cost 20 or 30 something dollars for like 3-5 oz. of meat and a dollop of potatoes or vegetable or something. (I'm sure it's worth savoring, but it never fills me up...) Or you hit the McD's or Wendy's or something and get half a pound or more of greased-up beef, a yellow cheese-like substance, plus greased-up fries and a high-fructose cup of empty calories for six bucks or less. And you didn't even have to get dressed up or make reservations! Of course poor people are fat...

The other factor that I wonder if studies correct for is race and geography. Namely, that black people and Southerners are disproportionately poor (especially if you just consider absolute dollar-figures rather than cost-of-living, since it's cheaper to live in the South). And on top of that, blacks and Southerners have a culture of fatty foods (fried stuff and various pork products) and other high-caloric pursuits. I would think that you'd have to look at each region and race/culture group independently to see if wealth/income actually had the impact we think it does, or if it's just an expression of other aspects.

(Personal note: I love fast food and Southern food. I had a BBQ sandwich for lunch today. But I won't pretend it's great for me...)

The chart shothotbot linked to kind of does that and it appears that within races gender is important. My hypothesis there: Poor men are more likely to do jobs that require manual labor, which would offset a lot of the advantages of wealth in terms of nutrition, exercise, etc. Poor women aren't doing those kinds of jobs, if they work at all, so they end up getting fat.

Lot of factors at play here...
posted by SuperNova at 1:49 PM on March 12, 2008


Generalisations here, but in well-developed countries the besides eating healthier, the wealthy have the time to work out, obsess over their body-image, and visit a dietitian/trainer. As for the less-fortunate, they're stuck with fast food/microwave dinners before sleeping/heading to work.

I do none of those things, I shop at the discount grocery store, am far from wealthy and I am slim and in good shape. It does not cost that much more to eat reasonably well: snacking on carrots is cheaper than Dorritos and there is no law against adding frozen vegetables to your Ramen at the low, low cost of $2-3/meal. Mc Donalds is way more expensive than buying even rudimentary groceries.

imho, the problem is that large swatches of people in the US don't know how to eat well or take care of themselves because they didn't learn how to. The first time I went to the midwest I went 3 days without seeing a vegetable that wasn't coleslaw and everyone was gigantic and in ill health, parents and grown kids alike.
posted by fshgrl at 5:41 PM on March 12, 2008


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