Does This Recession Make Me Look Fat? A New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: Ingo Bernhardt)

We seem to be in the midst of a national obsession with obesity. Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is about some of the surprising contributors, and possible economic solutions, to the problem. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

One suspected contributor to obesity, for instance, is the drastic decline in smoking in recent years. It’s great news that fewer people smoke but, according to Vanderbilt economist Kip Viscusi, people who quit smoking tend to gain weight.

Christopher Ruhm, an economist at the University of Virginia, has studied a different weight-related tradeoff:

RUHM: What we’ve learned over the last decade or so is an initially surprising fact that when times are bad, people get healthier over many dimensions and one of those appears to be obesity. So that for example, if my income is down, I don’t go out to eat as often, and meals eaten out of the home are probably less healthy and more caloric.

So what’s the overall relationship between the Great Recession and weight gain? The CDC recently released data indicating that obesity rates had leveled off in the last few years, but it’s too early to tell. Furthermore, Dhaval Dave, an economist at Bentley University, has found evidence on exercise and eating habits during economic downturns that could conflict with Ruhm’s finding.

Obesity plainly has many contributing factors and no single solution. At least part of the problem, though, boils down to basic economics: high-caloric food tends to be really cheap (and delicious!). So we talk with Kai Ryssdal about some of the possible ways to trim our collective waistline, from a food-subsidy overhaul to so-called “fat taxes.”

Here’s where you can listen to Marketplace on a station near you.

Audio Transcript

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics radio. It's that moment every two weeks where we talk with Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same name, it is about the hidden side of everything. Dubner, you know what -- I'm especially glad to have you back this week. You know why?

Stephen Dubner: I know why.

Ryssdal: You do. You sent me something. I love it when you send me something.

Dubner: What can I tell you, I am benevolent fella. Go ahead, Kai, open up your little package.

Ryssdal: All right, here we go. It's a little bubble-wrapped envelope, with an envelope inside. Very careful. OK. So it's a pack of Marlboros. And I don't smoke, dude.

Dubner: Believe it or not, I'm trying to help you stay trim. I want you to listen to Kip Viscusi, who's an economist at Vanderbilt who studies smoking.

Ryssdal: All right.

Kip Viscusi: Well one thing is that if you give up smoking, you'll gain some weight. May not be enough to make you morbidly obese, but it'll make you a little heavier.

Ryssdal: So here's the hidden side, right? It's the unintended consequences of quitting smoking.

Dubner: You're learning, my friend.

Ryssdal: How long have we been doing this segment?

Dubner: Couple years, but you're getting there. So our smoking rate in this country has been falling dramatically, which is fantastic news, but there's a hidden side to that -- as if with everything. Now, I'm not saying that smoking is a good way to fight weight gain -- let me be clear: it is not, and smoking is bad for you. But this is an instructive lesson about trade-offs, because I want to talk today about another weight-related trade-off, having to do with the economy. So Kai, let me ask you this question: What do you think the Great Recession has done to our collective waistline?

Ryssdal: Well, I'm going to go with my gut: It's a bad thing, right, because people are going to McDonald's for the dollar menu and all that stuff, and thus we're getting fatter.

Dubner: That is a fantastic guess. And you may be right this time.

Ryssdal: But some wrong.

Dubner: Usually you are, but some research suggests that you may be right. But other research suggests the opposite. Let me play the opposite. Here's Christopher Ruhm, who's an economist at the University of Virginia.

Christopher Ruhm: What we've learned over the last decade or so is an initially surprising fact that when times are bad, people get healthier over many dimensions and one of those appears to be obesity. So that for example, if my income is down, I don't go out to eat as often, and meals eaten out of the home are probably less healthy and more caloric.

Ryssdal: All right, makes sense on its face but I'm still not convinced.

Dubner: Here's the thing: Obesity is one of those problems that has a lot of different causes, not all of them obvious. But you were right to focus on the relationship between dollars and calories. That's incredibly important to consider. I mean, think about this: For the vast majority of human civilization, it was a big struggle to provide enough affordable calories for everyone. But over the past few generations, we've gotten very, very good -- particularly rich nations like ours -- at making calories abundant and delicious and cheap. The markets have given us exactly what we wanted, and now we're dealing with a side effect.

Ryssdal: Well are you saying then that we should intervene in the markets and make those calories more expensive?

Dubner: Well, I'm not a big intervener kind of guy, but that's the right question to ask. Let's go back to your cigarettes that I sent you, and talk about how incentives work. That pack I sent you cost -- believe it or not -- $12 here in New York, and about half of that was taxes. Now, economists generally agree that cigarette taxes have helped drive down smoking; so if you raise the price of cigarettes a little bit, consumption falls. And that is why, if you want to talk about obesity, some people like the idea of a "fat tax," which is a tax on fat foods, not fat people, by the way. They've tried this in Denmark and Hungary, and there's some talk of trying it here.

Ryssdal: Yeah, but that's never going to fly, right?

Dubner: It is a classic regressive tax, it would harder on low-income people than higher-income people, which makes it tough. Another tough sell is to change the food subsidies coming out of Washington. So there's billions of subsidy dollars that now go to corn, wheat and soy -- none of which are bad in and of themselves, but products of those get turned into very, very, very cheap additives in junk food. So one argument is we should shift those subsidies toward fruits and vegetables, so it's cheaper to eat healthier.

Ryssdal: Which makes sense. So do me a favor next time if you send me something?

Dubner: Yeah?

Ryssdal: Make it fruits or vegetables or, um, beer would actually be good too. You could send more beer.

Dubner: Light beer.

Ryssdal: No, no, not light beer. But that's a whole other segment. Stephen Dubner, is the website. He's back in a couple of weeks. See ya.

Dubner: My pleasure, thank you.



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  1. SG says:

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

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6
    • Lassie says:

      Breakfast at home: coffee. coffee. yet more coffee.

      Breakfast out: Sausage and egg croissant-wich (and coffee)

      Lunch at home: yogurt. Maybe a banana. The last oreo.

      Lunch out: Whopper Jr., onion rings, small fries, Mountain Dew

      And so it goes. It ain’t rocket science.

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  2. Jonathan says:

    J. Catherine MaClean has a similar paper on this as well!

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  3. James says:

    There are several items susceptable to challenge here. First, the connection between quitting smoking & weight gain as cause of the obesity epidemic. But we also have AFAIK similar rates of obesity among children, who can’t have quit smoking because they never started. Still, it’d be interesting to compare rates among three groups of adults: never smoked, still smoking, and quit.

    Then can we visit your assertation that “high-caloric food tends to be really cheap (and delicious!)”? I’d really like to see some data to support that, as my own shopping seems to contradict it. Just from memory, I can buy a pound of brown rice (1664 calories/lb dry, about a third of that cooked) for about $0.60/lb, while a pound of butter (about 3200 cal/lb) is about $2.40.

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    • frankenduf says:

      duh- go to mickey d’s for the QED on cheap slop- and smoking slows gastric motility, which should simply be reported here rather than the sensational link between smoking and obesity

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    • Jim In Frankfort says:

      Um, I’m not sure a pound of butter and a pound of brown rice are really substitutes for each other. I think the point is that for a given meal it is far easier and cheaper to go high calorie … whether eating at home or out. Think of the cost of a salad vs. burger and fries out, or chicken nuggets and fries vs. broccoli and whitefish at home, or grapes vs. cheesy-poofs as a snack.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0
      • James says:

        “…for a given meal it is far easier and cheaper to go high calorie …”

        I have not found it to be so, but I admit that I do know how to cook, and enjoy cooking. Likewise, I have little knowledge of what’s served at McDonalds or other fast-food restaurants these days, but comparing prepared meals with home-cooked has a certain – well, not apples to oranges, but apples to HFCS – quality about it.

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  4. AlexG says:

    Hi Stephen,

    Not sure whether you ever read these posts, but I am going to go ahead and comment anyway. First of all, I would like to say that I am a huge fan of your books and I download all the podcasts from you site. I really enjoy how you help looking at familiar problems from a different perspective. However, while listening to the recent podcasts, like the one above, and the one about commitment devices (where Steve suggests wearing a jar of vomit around your neck to use as an appetite suppressant), I find that both you and Steve seem to ignore a newly resurgent idea that carbohydrates, and not necessarily calories and lack of exercise, are to blame for the obesity epidemic. The basic premise being, over 95% of human evolutionary history humans had no agriculture, and therefore, no access to simple carbohydrates like sugars and processed and unprocessed grains. Consumption of carbohydrates elicits insulin secretion, which basically tells your body to store fat, rather than to use it for energy. This is a very brief description of a rather complex idea and it is definitely a topic that you should explore in your future podcasts.

    There are a number of sources that I have come across that promote this idea – I will list a few of them below:

    Podcast on Econtalk featuring Gary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat –

    War on Insulin blog by Peter Attia, a medical doctor who adopted the low carb life style and is tracking his own personal progress as well as his research on the blog:

    Art De Vany’s website – a proponent of the so-called “caveman diet”. A lot of interesting information on diet and exercise.

    A presentation by Robert Lustig, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics, on the dangers of sugar:

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    • Srdjan Andrei Ostric says:

      Glad you brought this up, especially Art DeVany, as he is an economist. I think economics evolution and diet are all inter-related, as people have to make choices about how much the will expend for their energy requirement. Seems set up for something an economist would love to study.

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  5. jake3_14 says:

    To expand on Alex G., comment, Dubner’s assumption that eating fat makes you fat is fatally flawed. Here is a page with links to studies showing that a high-fat, low-carb diet is effective for weight loss:

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    • AlexG says:

      Jake, great link there. I really enjoyed the Science for Smart People video. And while Levitt and Dubner might look into our comments and actually give them some serious thought, the bigger issue I think is that low fat, calorie restricted diets are still the mainstream doctrine of healthy eating. From the USDA to Michelle Obama’s pet project Let’s Move (, low fat, calorie restricted diets are still front and center. No wonder this “war on obesity” is not yielding any results – it gives not just worthless, but actually dangerous and counterproductive advice.

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  6. Srdjan Andrei Ostric says:

    I love your podcast, no doubt. But I think you got it wrong on this one. Calories are not the issues the discussion of obesity during a recession, times of wealth, or whatever. What makes us fat is a high intake of carbohydrates, which are uniquely fattening. Poor folks are obese, not because they eat more fat, but they eat way more processed carbohydrates than others. Fat tags along, especially fat of the lowest quality: industrial seed oil, hydrogenated fat, and low quality meats (high in omega 6 content). This is the hidden side of obesity and poverty. I would love to talk to you about this as I think it would surprise you to see that obesity and poverty has a very regular connection with highly processed carbohydrates (grain-based) and low quality oils.

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