Obesity comes as a side order to cheap food
Even families with limited resources can easily purchase enough calories to meet — and exceed — their daily needs.
By Evan Horowitz
Here’s one way to end the obesity crisis in the United States: Make bad food more expensive. Much more expensive, like it was 100 years ago, when Americans spent over 40 cents of every dollar on foodstuffs — four times as much as they spend today. When prices were that high, few could afford to be overweight or obese.
Today food is cheap, especially the unhealthy stuff, like fat and sugar. Even families with limited resources can easily purchase enough calories to meet — and exceed — their daily needs. And that’s a big reason obesity has become an urgent public health crisis.
Is obesity really about food costs?
Where incomes are low, and food purchases make up a large share of the family budget, people tend to eat less and stay thinner. By contrast, in wealthier places where people can afford to buy more food, obesity is much more common.
In India, for example, only about one in every 20 people is considered obese, and that’s at least partly because Indians spend about 35 percent of their money on food. By contrast, the United States can boast the lowest food costs in the world, but obesity afflicts one of every three adults.
There are some exceptions to this rule. Asian countries like Japan and South Korea manage to have both affordable food and low obesity rates. But the underlying pattern is pretty clear. Cheaper food means more obesity.
Another way to see this is to look back in time. Fifty years ago, the United States was a much poorer country, and less than 15 percent of Americans were actually obese. Since then, the cost of food has fallen by 40 percent, and the obesity rate has more than doubled.
If money buys obesity, why are lower-income Americans vulnerable?
Lower-income folks in the United States tend to have slightly higher obesity rates, particularly lower-income women. And that poses something of a puzzle: Don’t poorer families have less money to spend on food? And, if so, shouldn’t they be thinner?
The twist in this puzzle is that lower-income families in the United States do have enough money to buy food — but not always enough for healthy food, which tends to be substantially more expensive.
On average, lower-income Americans spend upwards of 25 cents of every dollar on foodstuff. That’s a substantial chunk of their spending money and far more than the national average of 10 cents. One way to stretch those food dollars is to buy products that are energy dense, providing a lot of calories for very low cost. Unfortunately, such foods tend to be less healthy, because few ingredients are as cheap and energy-dense as fat and sugar.
So, for example, getting your calories from strawberries or lettuce can be many times more expensive than getting them from sugar, bread, or pasta. And this gap has expanded over time.
As a result, lower-income families who make an economic decision to cut costs by purchasing cheaper, calorie-dense foods, can end up struggling against the weight-gaining consequences.
What does this mean for antiobesity efforts?
Every time new agricultural techniques make food cheaper, or economic growth puts more money in the pockets of consumers around the world, the risk of obesity expands.
This doesn’t negate the importance of other factors. The aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods seems to have made a difference, as does the evolutionarily inflected, taste-drenched pleasure that comes from consuming fat and sugar.
But you can’t escape the economics. Even the rich and thin Asian countries, like Japan, have seen obesity rates rise as incomes have grown.
Moving forward, any solution to the obesity pandemic has to reckon with this basic fact: As food gets cheaper, people tend to eat more.