Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Economics Makes You Fat

There have been a lot of debates recently about why people are so much fatter than they used to be. Well, the answer has a lot to do with the law of demand as you can see by this discussion in the Wall Street Journal by economist Darius Lakdawalla, and it basically boils down to the fact that food is now cheaper and and work nowadays demands less physical activity:

It's no secret that Americans have been getting fatter over the last several decades. But in fact, weight has been rising for more than 150 years, as shown by the economic historians Dora Costa and Richard Steckel. From the Civil War to the 1990s, the weight of a 6-foot-tall American male increased by about 30 pounds on average.

These historical trends are not hard to understand. As we have gotten wealthier and more technologically advanced, food has gotten cheaper and work more sedentary. Both these factors have contributed to rising weight over the time-frame of centuries, and the recent rise in obesity has likewise been fueled by reductions in the price of food.

Since 1976, food has fallen in price by more than 12% compared to other goods. My colleague Tomas Philipson and I have shown that this reduction in price can explain at least half the recent growth in obesity. Shin-Yi Chou, Michael Grossman and Henry Saffer reached similar conclusions about the importance of price. In addition to its overall price, they stressed the increasing availability of food service establishments.

While it is not entirely clear whether restaurants make people heavier, or heavier people attract more restaurants, there is no question that eating is cheaper and easier than it used to be. As if that were not enough, the most calorie-dense foods have seen the biggest price reductions. David Cutler, Edward Glaeser, and Jesse Shapiro have shown that technological advances have especially lowered the price of processed and snack foods -- like french fries and vending machine treats -- which are particularly high in calories.

The evidence above suggests that obesity is a by-product of prosperity and technological advance.

(Source: Greg Mankiw's Blog)


Anonymous said...

I totally believe this to be true. New studies done by the government have shown that "almost one in three American adults is obese and well over half are overweight" (webMd). This fact seems shocking at first, but when we look around at our population it becomes a lot easier to stomach (no pun intended). Obesity has been named "one of the most pressing new health challenges that we face today" (webMd). It is a major cause of death and the saddest thing is that it is preventable. Restaurants have supersized/value sized/ or all together upsized their portions so that people are subconsciously eating tons more than they used to. The world seems to have become more stressful; people no longer have time to cook so they turn to fast food or over processed food; when things have to get cut out of the schedule, exercise is normally one of the first to go. As obesity seems to rise, people seem to become more comfortable with it and don't worry about their weight as much. I think if people knew the health risks, they would put down the remote and the 800 calorie drink, go for a walk, and stay away from Mickey Ds for a while...
-Natalie Halpern

Anonymous said...

Many Americans choose not to exercise but I am a firm believer that exercise is beneficial. Not only does it help you not become overweight it is also a great stress reliever. Playing a sport you like is another way to exercise but still have fun. I learned by reading Fast Food Nation that fast food corporations have been marketing to children for a while. A child can get the whole family to go to a fast food restaurant just because they want a happy meal. When those children do grow up, they still relate happy and good feelings with that fast food chain so they will still eat there as an adult. Some fast food companies such as Wendy's are switching to a different kind of oil that they fry things in to reduce the trans fat and calories. Other companies such as McDonlads have decided not to do this because they claim that their food will then loose its great flavor. It is still unclear which strategy will result in more profit for the fast food companies. If it is shown that one food is healthier than another, then maybe people will be willing to pay more for a healthier food so that strategy will be successful in the long run. I believe that people are getting too caught up in their lives and all of the conveniences that are present in it.
-Brian Meier

Anonymous said...

Obesity is definitely seen throughout the U.S.A. To be harsh, it could be said that patriotism, football, and obesity represent America. Some of the facts in this information are incredible. For example, since the Civil War 6 ft. men have gained 30 pounds on average. I realize this is the Civil War was a long time ago, but still. I , myself, weigh about 170 pounds and I imagined myself gaining 30 more pounds. That would mean that I weigh 200 pounds. I think it might show a little bit. Im not 6 feet tall, but 30 pounds for anyone is a lot. People are not as scared as they use to be about gaining weight because a lot of other people are obese, and what’s is the big deal? They can just pay a few thousand dollars and have all the fat sucked out of them. That is lazy, and that is some Americans mentality. When the authors try to explain why socio economics could affect obesity, I agreed with them very much. It makes sense because fast food places and common chain restaurants are fairly inexpensive. So it would make sense that poorer people would be eating at those places more. On the other hand, Eatzis and Whole Foods are grocery stores and eateries that produce healthier and fresher food. The only down side to them is that because the food they produce is not made in bulk it is more expensive. Fast food places do cause problems and aid obesity because the companies have technology that allows them to produce massive amounts of fake processed food. To make things worse the advertisers of fast food companies have told the public that they are allowed to have bigger sizes in food and drink. “Super Size Me” the documentary does a great job of showing how the fast food industry has aided obesity. In a sickening way large amounts of obesity have helped create new industries. For example, on every corner there are fitness gyms. I am a member of one myself. I joke you not on a week day at 5:00 P.M. my gym is packed with kids and adults ready to do either weights or cardio equipment. The new fitness industry has provided people with new jobs. Marginal analysis could play a role debating weather America gaining a new fitness industry is worth all the obesity in America. Finally, I do believe that because there is new technology humans now are able to do more things in their days than they use to. Things that humans view more important than eating healthy and exercising. Time making money is good, time being social is great, and time being lazy is nice, but people need to evaluate how nice time to be living is. If people want to live longer then they need to take better care of themselves physically and mentally.

Anonymous said...

mr arjona sorry that one sent in at 7:46 P.M is mine, seth weiland. Forgot the big name

Anonymous said...

As promised, I am once again relating this economics discussion to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In his introduction to the book, editor Richard D. Heffner described “modern, forntierless, industrial America—with its factory-made, standardized food, clothing, housing, communications and even amusements—[as] plac[ing] a premium upon sameness, undermin[ing] individualism, and creat[ing] to perfection what contemporary sociologists bemoan as pre-eminently and ‘age of conformity’” (Democracy in America pg. 21). As economic standards have increased and the standard of living raised, obesity has become more and more pressing of a problem. Just as the economists have debated, this obesity outbreak is not due solely to the fact that people are making more money, because obesity has the highest frequency in the lower income brackets. I think this is due to the fact that the upper classes have the leisure time or the resources (or both) to devote to a good diet and healthy exercise program. The blue-collar working classes work long hours and need cheap nourishment by such inferior (and fatty) goods as beef and carbohydrates. Lower-class people focus on getting enough food rather than achieving the right nutritional balance illustrated by the food pyramid, with seemingly innumerable daily servings of fruits and vegetables. The standardized food of the 21st century is fatty, with oil and grease as the main ingredients because we are an instant gratification seeking culture, more concerned about the good tastes and pleasures derived from eating a lot fast than about the consequences that affect health and living. Although, as Brian and Seth have pointed out, the dangers in unhealthy diets have been exposed in the media with such documentaries as Super Size Me, the average American remains primarily concerned with his or her daily routine and activities and puts health on the backburner. Americans have the longest workweek, but the highest standard of living. Though these things seem like pluses for the U.S. economy, they are detriments to the health of the American population as people are forced to eat a lot of cheap, fatty foods, quickly and have no time to exercise or work any calories off at work because industrialization has seriously decreased the need for manual (and thus fat burning) labor. Thus, because the demand for quick-fix options that satisfy our hunger, wallets, tastes, and timetable has increased, the demand for diet and exercise programs such as Weight Watchers, gyms, and recently healthy-alternative dishes has also increased as obesity rates increase.

I myself find this economic principle to be so true as I have been forced to give up my daily walks with school starting and the pressures of homework and extracirricular activities building up. I eat candies and chocolates, even though I know they're empty calories, because I need a quick energy booster that will hold off my hunger while I continue to work. My friends do the same with fatty coffee drinks from Starbucks and Chick-fil-a biscuits. We all need our comfort foods to get us through the stresses of our overextended lives.

--Sarah O'Donohue