The Economics of Obesity: Why Are Poor People Fat?

In Diet and Nutrition, Featured Article, Health Warning

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 (, and are three organizations that can help you find farmers in your region).