Big Fat Facts Big Fat Index

'Free market' causes obesity?

Beware the headless fatty pic when clicking on the article, like usual. I haven't checked out the comments of course, but as usual proceed with caution.

Obesity more likely with 'free market' economies

Some of the points made are reasonable:

"Policies to reduce levels of obesity tend to focus on encouraging people to look after themselves, but this study suggests that obesity has larger social causes," said Avner Offer, a professor of economic history who led the study.

Then the correlative findings:

Offer's team looked at 11 wealthy countries and found that those with a liberal market regime -- with strong market incentives and relatively weak welfare states -- experienced one-third more obesity on average.

Comparing four "market-liberal" English-speaking countries -- the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia -- with seven relatively wealthy European countries that traditionally offer stronger social protection -- Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden -- the team found that economic insecurity is strongly linked to levels of obesity.

And then the specious hypothesis and outright wrong claims:

Countries with higher levels of job and income security were associated with lower levels of obesity, the researchers said.

"Basically, our hypothesis is that market-liberal reforms have stimulated competition in both the work environment and in what we consume, and this has undermined personal stability and security," Offer said in a statement about the findings.

He also argued that the onset and increase of large-scale obesity began during the 1980s, coinciding with the rise of market-liberalism in the English-speaking countries.

Actually, market-liberalism arose in the nineteenth century. It went into great decline in the war and postwar era, and then came back in some measure in the post-Carter Reaganomics era (though outlays for defense spiked during that time). But it was no new golden age of liberal economics: in general, the law of aging governments rarely deviates from increasing regulation, increasing control, increasing meddling, increasing services, increasing general dependency---a trend much more historically convincing than any kind of 30% correlation dredged up by the authors of this article.

In short, their economic assumptions, their attempt to tie in some kind of economic trend to 'growing' obesity levels (which we know were manufactured in part by changing BMI definitions from their adoption in the 1980s until 2000), lead me to believe that this is nothing more than a weak swipe at liberal economics by taking advantage of the Diet Season's weight obsession.

Here's concise history of the BMI, just in case you're interested. And here's a Flegal article (PDF) that goes into much greater detail, and even has a really handy chart.

But that's really beside the point. The article is about emotional instability and stress as the core driving impulse behind fatness. It also gives a nod to the fake 'fast-food shock' exemplified by scare-screeds like "Super Size Me." The population has gotten fatter with greater food security (about 15 lbs over the past 30 years), as it's gotten taller (about two inches in that same time period), healthier, and longer-lived. The idea that this more definite trend is rooted in economic insecurity is correlative, statistical-illogic BS.

If it was, we'd notice trends in fatness directly corresponding to times of greatest economic insecurity and the greatest domestic stress---war and recessions. It's just a guess since I don't have my hands on any charts, but I'm guessing if there's any size-related trend over time with respect to war and recession it's people getting thinner, not fatter.

Anecdotally---I come from a long line of fat people. Without exception (AFAIK), we lose our appetites in stressful situations. I know we're not outliers---I've heard of many others, including thin friends, who also lose their appetites during stress. My own husband lost 15 lbs the month we moved into our first house. An ex had chronic indigestion due to stress and had to carefully monitor his intake to make sure he was eating enough, as he was already underweight. The Mayo Clinic lists both overeating and undereating as signs of stress.

Based on what I've read all these years the difference in obesity rates has much more to do with distribution of genetic groups, which is another way the English-speaking countries are tied together. Economic insecurity and social stress is not by any stretch unique to relatively free markets. Blaming it on stress of the 'free market' is short-sighted, and reduces the complicated socioeconomic relationship to size to something simplistically meaningless.

This article is Diet Season incendiary crap meant to do little more than advance an agenda by taking advantage of a vulnerable population. It doesn't even touch upon the relationship between size and socioeconomic status, and if it did it would still ignore the elephant in the room---genetics---in its attempt to frame fatness as a social problem to be 'fixed.' It's time to take back our fat identities---we aren't problems, we aren't symptoms of a broken economic system, or a broken planet, or broken health, or a broken morality.

NOTE: Do not click on the links the last sentence unless you have at least 100,000 Sanity Watchers points.

Live My C.H.O.I.C.E. - LapBand Contest sponsored by Allergan | Some "Debate"

AndyJo's picture
January 11th, 2011 | Link | Well, umm...

This is one of those times when I kind of agree with BL on the fundamentals though not the same way she expresses it. I'll detail the nuance.

Without getting into the aspects of Free Market, there ARE some correlations between obesity and poverty/social class. It is really stressful to be poor. Along with obesity social class and poverty status is strongly correlated with stress-related diseases. You could say that if poverty causes someone to be in a lower social class, then their stress will be higher and their likelihood of obesity (provided other factors are present) will be higher.

The correlation is so strong that we have heard in this forum about people of means underfeeding their children so they will not be fat (hatred of the obese combined with fear of poverty or being perceived as poor), and we have all experienced the discrimination of one kind or another (or several). Think about studies about fat people's lower average salaries, problematic access to healthcare, and so on.

None of these are free-market problems exclusively. They could and do exist in ANY society. HOWEVER, in cases where there is an entity (such as a government) that can address the needs of people who are poor in order to remove SOME of the stress, then arguably one might be able to hypothesize that one could see a lower incidence of obesity in the lower classes in countries which provide that. However, with all of the other factors going on (homogeneity of the society or lack thereof, the food environment, genetics...) I personally think this is a red herring. An interesting red herring, but a red herring nonetheless.

I also don't get what the point is. Is it supposed to encourage us all to accept Norway-style social protections and thus taxes to pay for it? I don't see that happening here. Just don't - and certainly NOT to help the fatties.

--Andy Jo--

BigLiberty's picture
January 11th, 2011 | Link | Hi AndyJo, Just briefly, I

Hi AndyJo,

Just briefly, I didn't deny in my post that there's a socioeconomic relationship to size --- I mentioned that it was more complex than these authors were making it out to be.

Namely, we know that there's a higher level of obesity in impoverished communities. However, whether this is due to the stress of economic insecurity (and, like I outlined, stress can cause weight *loss* as much as *gain*), or access to fresh foods (I don't think this is the case either), or is more a function of sizist discrimination and racism (passing over fatter individuals for jobs/promotions, rampant sizist child-abuse, and the greater incidence of obesity tied to ethnic groups who currently have greater levels of poverty than the general population due to racism), is up for debate.

DeeLeigh's picture
January 13th, 2011 | Link | I'm actually not as critical

I'm actually not as critical of the article as you are, BigLiberty, although I think you make a lot of good points. While it's obvious that populations tend to be thinner when they're starving and many people do find it difficult to eat when they're under extreme stress, I've often wondered if the combination of cheap, high calorie food, chronic economic stress, and food insecurity might have something to do with people getting very fat, in some cases. I'm pretty sure that people of a given background who have been food insecure are more likely to be fat than those who haven't. After all, alternating food restriction and eating a lot is how sumo wrestlers put on weight, and it's also similar to the yo-yo dieting cycle that we agree causes people to get larger over time. Also, I keep hearing from people who are in chronic, physically and mentally stressful situations that they're gaining weight without changing their habits. That makes me think that chronic stress might have a role in weight gain, too.

This combination of factors isn't unique to economies that are far over to the capitalist end of the spectrum, but it is present in them.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

© 2000-2018 Big Fat Blog and its authors, all rights reserved. Big Fat Blog, Big Fat Facts, and Big Fat Index are our trademarks.