Why Are Women More Likely to Be Obese Than Men?

In almost all countries, women are more likely to be obese than men. The economists Anne Case and Alicia Menendez set out to learn why, using data collected from a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Here’s what they determined:

1. “Women who were nutritionally deprived as children are significantly more likely to be obese as adults, while men who were deprived as children face no greater risk.”

2. “Women of higher adult socioeconomic status are significantly more likely to be obese, which is not true for men.”

These two factors, Case and Menendez write, fully explain the difference in female/male obesity rates they found in their sample. But there is a third point as well:

3. “Finally (and more speculatively), women’s perceptions of an ‘ideal’ female body are larger than men’s perceptions of the ‘ideal’ male body, and individuals with larger ‘ideal’ body images are significantly more likely to be obese.”

Although this research was done in a setting far removed from the typical U.S. town or suburb, Case and Menendez’s findings seem well worth thinking about for anyone here who is trying to fight obesity. Another issue to explore further might be whether obesity has a large cost for a woman when she is unmarried, but less so when she is married — although one could ask the same question of men.

It is perhaps also worth noting an obvious fact here: Case and Menendez are both women, and have produced here what looks like an important piece of research that concerns women. Emily Oster also comes to mind as a woman who does important research concerning women. Which leads me to wonder:

1. Do male economists tend to do too little research on women’s issues?

2. If so, shouldn’t there be many more female economists?

(If this subject is near to your heart, the Ten Principles of Feminist Economics may be worth a look.)

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  1. Robin says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  2. Robin says:

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  3. legaleaglet says:

    That’s very interesting. My casual observation has tended to be that women from lower on the socio-economic ladder tend to be heavier than women who are higher–it costs money to be thin when junk food is cheap and high quality produce, health club memberships, and other, shall we say, “thinness support mechanisms” like diet pills and personal trainers are expensive.

    But then, my casual observations tend to be of other young women who are between the ages of eighteen and thirty and nearly all of whom are unmarried and active in the dating scene. Given the premium our society places on thinness in women, it might indeed no longer be “worth investing” in thinness once a woman has acquired an appropriate spouse…at least until the time comes to find a new one.

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  4. legaleaglet says:

    That’s very interesting. My casual observation has tended to be that women from lower on the socio-economic ladder tend to be heavier than women who are higher–it costs money to be thin when junk food is cheap and high quality produce, health club memberships, and other, shall we say, “thinness support mechanisms” like diet pills and personal trainers are expensive.

    But then, my casual observations tend to be of other young women who are between the ages of eighteen and thirty and nearly all of whom are unmarried and active in the dating scene. Given the premium our society places on thinness in women, it might indeed no longer be “worth investing” in thinness once a woman has acquired an appropriate spouse…at least until the time comes to find a new one.

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  5. Silvanus says:

    And this study has more merit than studies on obesity within the medical field how? Within the US, the poor tend to have higher obesity rates exactly for the reason why Legaleaglet notes- junk food is cheaper. There is an incentive to eat less healthy.

    Seriously, economists sometimes baffle me; here they are, touting around their ruler for every question under the sun when honestly, someone else has perfected a better tool to measure, predict and control for the question under purview. Just because economists can’t be bothered to read the medical literature, doesn’t mean they need to reinvent the BMI.

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  6. Silvanus says:

    And this study has more merit than studies on obesity within the medical field how? Within the US, the poor tend to have higher obesity rates exactly for the reason why Legaleaglet notes- junk food is cheaper. There is an incentive to eat less healthy.

    Seriously, economists sometimes baffle me; here they are, touting around their ruler for every question under the sun when honestly, someone else has perfected a better tool to measure, predict and control for the question under purview. Just because economists can’t be bothered to read the medical literature, doesn’t mean they need to reinvent the BMI.

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  7. Robin says:

    Actually, Silvanus, BMI was invented by an economist, not a doctor. (it was originally an actuarial statistic which is why it’s fairly accurate as a health gauge among populations but meaningless in many individuals)

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  8. Robin says:

    Actually, Silvanus, BMI was invented by an economist, not a doctor. (it was originally an actuarial statistic which is why it’s fairly accurate as a health gauge among populations but meaningless in many individuals)

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