The Economics of Obesity: Why Are Poor People Fat?

This is what poverty looked like in the Great Depression…

This is what poverty looks like today…

For most of recorded history, fat was revered as a sign of health and prosperity. Plumpness was a status symbol. It showed that you did not have to engage in manual labor for your sustenance. And it meant that you could afford plentiful quantities of food.

For most people, however, being fat was simply not an option. The constant struggle to hunt and harvest ensured that we stayed active. And for those with little money, the supply of calories was meager. This ensured that most of the working class stayed slim.

Rich people were fat. Poor people were thin.

Today, the polar opposite is true. Numerous studies show that low-income children and adults are far more likely to be overweight than those of greater means. And the statistical distribution fits a nice, neat curve – as income falls, the rate of obesity rises.

The following graph from a population study in Utah puts this in perspective. The tallest bar on the left represents the lowest income group… and the highest rate of obesity.

Logically, this makes no sense and it is contrary to our historical experience. How is it that the people with the least money to spend are the most likely to be overweight?

There is no shortage of suggestions for why this is the case. Here are just a few I’ve come across:

  • Poor people are uneducated and ignorant about nutrition. (They never learned that Doritos and Twinkies are not a healthy meal).
  • Poor people are too lazy (or too busy working) to cook real food.
  • Poor people are too tired after working two jobs to get enough exercise.
  • Poor people don’t have access to fitness centers and farmers markets.

There is some truth in all of these statements. But they certainly do not apply to all lower income workers. Each exhibits a significant misunderstanding. And none of them identify the real reason why modern poverty is so closely correlated with obesity.

The Real Reason Why Poor People Are Fat

Professor and obesity researcher, Dr. Adam Drewnowski set out to determine why income is the most reliable predictor of obesity in the U.S. To do this, he took a hypothetical dollar to the grocery store. His goal was to purchase as many calories as possible per dollar.


What he found is that he could buy well over 1,000 calories of cookies or potato chips. But his dollar would only buy 250 calories of carrots. He could buy almost 900 calories of soda… but only 170 calories of orange juice.

If you are poor and hungry, you are obviously going to buy the cheapest calories you can find. And in today’s world, the cheapest calories come from junk foods – whether those foods are found at the grocery store, the gas station, or in the fast food restaurant, conveniently located just down the street.

But this raises another question. How can industrially-processed foods and their associated marketing costs be so much cheaper than real, whole foods produced from water, seeds and sunlight?

In a New York Times article, author Michael Pollan asks this very question…

“Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudo-cakes for less than a bunch of roots?

Pollan goes on to answer his own question…

“The Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year.

The primary reason that lower-income people are more overweight is because the unhealthiest and most fattening foods are the cheapest. If you were broke and had just three dollars to spend on food today, would you buy a head of broccoli or a Super Value Meal with French fries, a cheeseburger and a Coke?

Because you’re reading this publication, you might choose the former. But for most people who have very little to spend on food, the choice is clear.

And make no mistake. This does not represent a failure of the capitalist free-market system. Modern agri-business and government food policy represents a perverted version of capitalism – crony capitalism – where those with the most money and the most powerful friends in government control the markets.

What they have done is use your tax dollars to subsidize certain commodity crops (at the expense of others) to ensure that the cost of oils, sugar and grains stay artificially low. With low input costs, food manufacturers can turn a tidy profit. The end result is that processed foods – even though they require more technology, more labor and more marketing to produce and sell – are cheaper to the consumer than real, whole foods.

Consider that between 1985 and 2000, the inflation-adjusted prices of fruits and vegetables increased by an average of 40%. During the same period of time the real price of soft drinks fell by almost 25%.

There is no doubt that obesity has become a public health crisis. But because most politicians either do not understand the issue or because they are too corrupt to do the right thing, most “solutions” to this crisis are completely wrongheaded.

Some politicians are calling for a tax on fat people themselves. Currently, many state governments have imposed taxes on soft drinks and junk foods. And calls are growing louder for similar taxes at the federal level.

It is completely insane that in a country where the surgeon general has identified “an epidemic of obesity” that we are simultaneously subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. It is equally insane that the government is helping to artificially lower the cost of foods that are driving up national healthcare costs (i.e. killing us), while having a national healthcare debate about how we are going to pay for those costs.

So What Can You Do?

I am a strong advocate for free markets. If I had my way, I would not suggest shifting the subsidies from unhealthy commodity crops to crops that are considered healthy. I suggest leveling the playing field by ending food subsidies altogether.

But that is clearly not going to happen…

Within the current system, the best we can hope for is a situation where public funds are diverted from the corporate Agri-Giants (which is nothing more than welfare for the wealthy) to family farms and fruit and vegetable growers. Currently, almost 70% of farmers receive no subsidies at all, while the biggest and strongest take the bulk of public funds.

Public funds for farms and food should be directed to help build local and sustainable food systems. These funds should favor natural, organic and sustainable methods, rather than the chemical and industrial practices that pollute our rivers and our bodies.

Publicly funded cafeterias in schools, prisons and hospitals should be required to source a percentage of their food from regional sources. And federal food assistance programs like WIC cards and food stamps should be accepted at farmers markets and other healthier alternatives than the local Safeway.

This would do a lot more to help the “obesity crisis” than taxing soft drinks at a penny per ounces.

But you want to know the truth?

Very little of what I have just proposed is likely to happen. It doesn’t matter how much sense it makes. And it doesn’t matter how vocally the population howls in protest to the current system. The corporate powers that be are simply too powerful and too well-entrenched in Washington.

You best bet is to vote with your dollars and your feet.

Choose whole, natural foods over those that are processed. Most of the foods you bring home from the grocery store should not have ingredients. They should BE ingredients. If possible, buy your food directly from small farms and family-owned farms. And whenever you can, choose foods that are grown locally (www.eatwild.com, www.realmilk.com and www.localharvest.org are three organizations that can help you find farmers in your region).

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Health Topic: Diet and Nutrition | Health Warning | Undercover

Comments:

  1. Anonymous says:

    how does this make you feel?

    • John says:

      Very interesting article there and yes rich people are skinny because of economics. Real food – things that is not made from rubbish like wheat, r

      • John says:

        Oops that didnt come out right. what i was saying is
        It’s all boils down to economics. Rich people can afford to eat REAL FOOD- top quality meats, fish, organic vegetables, top quality fats and oils while

        poor people eat what look like food but is actually disease causing poisons- wheat, dirty meats and fish, rice, vegetable oils, trans fats, cotton seeds oils, milk,cheese, soy beans, potatoes, corn and every thing made from those ingredients which is why it is cheap and affordable but It’s all rubbish. Not to mention all that sugary soft drinks made from HFCS and other sugars.

        • Lunatic says:

          Is wheat unhealthy? As in the stuff in bread???

          What am I supposed to do? Live off rice?

          • Glenn says:

            That would be a good alternative, the Japanese do not eat wheat, they are healthier, live longer, have less heart disease and prostate cancer, and spend half as much on health as the USA. Rice is completely metabolized in the small intestine (white rice) unlike wheat, which is about 75% metabolized, the balance being fermented by bacteria in the colon.

            White rice does not contain gluten.

            What are you supposed to do, well that’s your choice but the Japanese staple source of energy neither makes them fat or sick, and its cheap.

          • Anna says:

            It’s not that wheat is unhealthy, but rather a diet based entirely on wheat is. Wheat is basically all carbohydrates and the golden ticket to weight gain( as opposed to popular misconception that eating fat is the fastest way to gain weight). If poor people’s diet is consisted primarily of chips that come in huge bags and proportions, it’s hard to stay in shape.

      • Barbie says:

        Good food costs, but it seems that no matter what level of economics Fat is fat and it has to do with the availability and social acceptance possibly. As well as the educational factor in teaching good food from bad. Basically, when you think about it. Anyone to blame would be media, fast food chains and the fast paced life of drive thru . Unemployment and depression, or non exercise basically.

  2. Daniel Wilder says:

    Or it could just be that wealthier people obviously care about themselves enough to take care of themselves. The same reason they succeeded in life.

    • Barbie says:

      What a crock! Not everyone was born with a gold bar in their ass and skinny. And even the wealthy are fat.
      What I find amazing is how you seem to think that poor people chose to be poor? Not everyone is poor based on choice, some had prominent jobs and careers and have come from a middle class income. It is the dynamics of the society and environment that contributes to the overall health of a person. Mental states and disease which may be hereditary are also know contributors to the person weight. Death of a spouse or the loss of a child. You know… You can’t say that people don’t care about themselves and that is the reason. You also have to add the prejudices that are prevalent today as well.

    • Sophia says:

      wealthy people can afford the best food, personal dieticians, best exercise equipment, gyms, fitness trainers, cosmetic surgery,etc..etc..some of then have their own private chef !
      I Love to eat healthy..lean protein, fresh veges and fruit but cannot afford it all month…..I cannot afford to pay over $20 for 5 chicken breasts for example ! Wealthy people can buy anything any time and not worry about cost ! Not only that they don’t feel stuck in any rut which sometimes lead the poor to over eating out of depression etc…poor people eat mass carbs because it is cheaper and affordable…pasta etc…If I was wealthy I would have the best body ever also and fit !When you wealthy you have so much and anything you could want or desire…no wonder they take care of themselves better..they have a positive and better life and don’t have concerns and worries about everyday struggles poor people do !

  3. Evan says:

    Well, you’re wrong.

  4. Brendan Davis says:

    It’s not the government’s job to ensure that we eat healthy. One day all the people who are to cowardly to take responsibility for themselves and expect the government to watch over them will cost us all of our freedoms.

    • Sophia says:

      BS …….the Government is the reason we cannot afford healthy food !!!!!! I want healthy food !!!!!!! I want to be able to afford it !!!!!

  5. Pedro Salinas says:

    Its foodstamps…if u dont finish them they take em away

  6. Hank says:

    I think it’s lack of sympathy. Poor people in general are unhappy. Their failures in life are attributed to themselves. Yes, a lot of poor people make stupid decisions and are poor for that reason. The problem is that we think we’ll help them by inflicting even more guilt on them. “Of course you’re fat if you drink soft drinks and eat fast food”. “Of course youre fat if you don’t exercise and ‘take care of yourself’ whatever that is…” A lot of poor people are told directly and indirectly everyday that they are worthless and stupid. Some of them have never been loved and appreciated in their entire life (and being fat wont help with that…). The only way for them to console themselves is food and drugs (which puts them even further down the spiral of guilt and self loathing). We need to stop moralizing so much and stick to the core value that every person has an intrinsic value even if you’re poor, fat and stupid.

    • Me says:

      Ive been whats considered poor and gained weight the past few years; I was expecting the article to include something about eating out of depression/unhappiness. You don’t have the extra money after buying food to afford fun fancy things to distract you and you’re too down to go do fun outdoors things, so you go to your food for comfort and try to avoid the exertion of exercise. This is my experience at least… first world problems I know ;n;

    • Anna says:

      I don’t think so. I think the core problem lies in the type of diet poor can consume. Richer individuals can have a choice to have a salad or some nice meat, but for many poor people, cheap carb and greasy products such as burgers and chips are their primary diet. ” Real food” in the supermarket is a lot more expansive than the food they serve in Mcdonalds.

    • Sophia says:

      Thank you for commenting…you made sense here ! Wish everyone got it !

  7. Ian Coleman says:

    Excuse me while I brag (in a perverse way), but I’ve been poor all of my adult life. I mean getting-welfare-cheques poor. I’ve been evicted twice for nonpayment of rent. But I’m thin, and always have been, even though I eat junk food every day. Obesity has a strong genetic component, and I don’t have the genes for weight gain.

    What I think is, it’s not that poverty makes you fat but being fat predisposes you to being poor. I know poor people (because I am one) and most of the poor people I know have personal handicaps that make them unattractive to other people. A common problem among the poor is that so many of them are not too bright. Most people just don’t like stupid people, and won’t work with them. Similarly, many poor people are just naturally fat, and the unattractiveness of obesity, in congress with being dumb, makes them vastly more likely to be unemployed. You can be fat and smart, and still have a job. You can be healthy and strong, but dumb, and still hold a job. But you can’t be both dumb and fat and stay employed for very long. That’s what I know from personal, up-close observation of the poor.

    Incidentally, I’m poor because I’m lazy. But I’m thin, and I’m smart enough to know how to punctuate a sentence.

  8. Sal Monella says:

    Priorities priorities priorities………………..
    Drive through the poorest areas of the Bronx and take some pictures.
    Everybody is walking around with tattoos from head to toe!
    The newest phones & gadgets.
    Expensive cars parked all around the projects.
    Those things cost MONEY
    DRUGS cost MONEY
    Most poorer people have little common sense and/or education!
    How else do you explain 2nd, 3rd and even 4th generation Latin Americans not speaking any English???
    African Americans speak a completely different dialect of English!!!
    They can’t read, write, comprehend etc etc etc
    We all have choices in this country!!!
    You can be fat, muscular, skinny; if you want to be!!!

    • ann says:

      That was an ignorant comment… Not all African Americans speak in a different manner. It’s all about education. If you don’t know what healthy eating habits are you can’t adopt them. I have several white American friends who think diet pepsi is a meal. If your parents taught you healthy eating habits then you will eat healthy. Its a learned behavior not a racial issue.

      • Joel says:

        I disagree Ann. We live in an information age. You cannot blame your upbringing for your life decisions. Once you become an adult, you are suposed to better yourself, learn how to take care of you and yours. Be responsible. To say “My daddy didn’t teach me how to eat”, does not excuse you being fat and increasing the healthcare cost for the rest of us to pay. Does anyone’s parents teach us how to have sex? I doubt it, but I bet they know how to have sex. So they obviously sought out the needed info to learn it.

        Address the personal responsibility issue, and half of our problems will go away.

  9. Walter Daniels says:

    It sounds logical, but it’s not. If it’s just purchasing cheap calories that makes people, then perhaps those obese people are buying too many calories that happen to be cheap. If you consume more calories than you expend, you gain weight. If one needs 2000 calories/ day, then how many cheeseburgers and fries are obese people buying? Way too many. It just might be less expensive for them to buy some rice, fruit and some eggs rather than the junk food.

  10. Robert Dylan says:

    Grest article. Sadly, the comments show it wasn’t fully undestood. Those ‘blaming’ the poor (unbelievably many do here) should re-read the point about the price of broccoli. Oh, and a huge percentage of ‘poor’ people (here in he UK as well as stateside) have mental health issues

  11. Suvetar says:

    I am poor and I’m of normal weight, athletic and quite healthy. Age 43 female.
    The reason I’m not fat is because my pancreas aren’t exhausted to the point of being insulin resistant. This happens to most Americans because the parents let their kids grow up on junk food to pacify them rather than teaching them the laws of obeying mother nature.
    I grew up in a country that had NO junk foods available, the only thing there was industrialized foods, feedlot pork, pesticide lettuce and the apples were probably GMO…

    Point is, if you start beating up your pancreas starting at age 1 or even 6 mo. olds with a high carb diet, regardless if it’s organic rice or Dorito Chips, you’re most likely to be fat by the time you’re 25.

    Don’t exhaust your glands!

  12. Andrew McConnell says:

    Whatever your income status not being overweight takes focus and will. One has to regulate how much calories consumed whether they are Twinkies or carrots. Exercise will allow one to eat more without gaining weight, poor people don’t excersize because they are lazy. So really it about conscious effort as both rich and poor are surrounded by calories that they need to reject in order to not gain weight.
    So it all about will power and control over one’s own body, people with this will power also tend to be wealthier as the same will power as enabled them to complete as masters degree and work 70 hrs a week at a job and invest money wisely. Also not overspend and go into debt or get divorced, all of things that lead to poverty.

    • Alicia says:

      It’s about will when you can afford to have enough food. A lot of times it’s cheaper to have a full meal from say McDonald’s than it is to have a full healthy meal consisting of, I don’t know, chicken, rice and vegetables. Say you only have five dollars to eat for the day would you go to the store and buy only a small portion of veggies (that probably isn’t good quality due the conditions in these neighborhoods)and maybe a little chicken or a few value burgers? It’s like asking would you rather have one small meal or enough food to stretch through out the day…
      Also, I don’t understand what you mean by lazy. What you didn’t consider is some of these people are working more than one job, long hours, just to get pay for rent, not leaving any money for food. Some of them are working just as much as the wealthy people that you referred to they’re just not making as much per hour. Of course it’s because they didn’t get a college degree but maybe there is no way they could. And if they took out a ton of loans just to get through it then they would still become indebted.

  13. Sophia says:

    I eat healthy the first part of the month and my weight comes down and I feel great…but then run out of money for healthy foods and end up eating more carbs..then my weight goes up and I feel sick…If I could afford fresh food like fresh veges and fruit and healthy lean meats all month long I would be awesomely fit all the time and feeling healthy !

  14. Trang chủ says:

    Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end
    or if it’s the blog. Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

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