Surprising New Findings on Obesity

One of the first Freakonomics Radio podcasts we made was an episode about the (surprisingly tenuous) link between obesity and health problems. A new study in The Journal of the American Medical Association finds that "Grade 1 obesity overall was not associated with higher mortality, and overweight was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality."  Writing for The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz explains:

Compared to people with a normal weight (a BMI less than 25), the overweight (BMI between 25 to 30) had a 6 percent lower mortality rate—and both groups had a rate about 15 percent lower than the obese, especially the very obese (BMI above 35).

The explanation for the finding is uncertain. Perhaps the pleasantly plump but not obese have an extra reserve—a literal spare tire—that confers a survival advantage should they become seriously ill, whereas the lean-iacs do not. Or maybe the thin ones were thin because of a serious illness that, in the course the various studies, killed them. Or maybe the thin ones were thin because they were chain smokers living off Scotch and potato chips. Or just maybe the occasional pig-out does soothe the soul and make for a happier, healthier individual.

(HT: Andrew Sullivan)

Fans of a "Fat Tax" Will Be Saddened by the News From Denmark

The other day, Levitt and I participated in a brainstorming session on how to fight childhood obesity, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (FWIW, we recorded the event and will try to turn it into a podcast.)

One topic that got a lot of traction was a targeted tax on sugary drinks and fatty foods. (This is often called a "fat tax" but should not be confused with a tax on overweight people.) Many people in the session were in favor of the idea but a few were skeptical, primarily because such a tax will be tricky to implement well. One objection that I was surprised no one raised: the simple fact that taxpayers might hate the tax and rebel against it to the point where it becomes politically and economically impossible.

In support of the idea, one person reminded us that Denmark recently instituted a "fat tax" on  foods containing more than 2.3 percent of saturated fat.

Why Fruit and Veggies Aren't Obesity Cure-Alls

RAND reports on a healthy eating dilemma:

Is eating more fruits and vegetables the key to reducing obesity? A recent RAND study of more than 2,700 adults found that calorie intake from cookies, candy, salty snacks, and soda was approximately twice as high as the recommended daily amount. Consumption of fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, is only 20% shy of recommended guidelines.

The Inflation of Everything

Inflation is a term most often employed to describe prices.  A too-high inflation rate results in a devalued currency. But what about the inflation of other things in our world? The Economist reports on this trend:

Price inflation remains relatively subdued in the rich world, even though central banks are busily printing money. But other types of inflation are rampant. This “panflation” needs to be recognised for the plague it has become.

Take the grossly underreported problem of “size inflation”, where clothes of any particular labelled size have steadily expanded over time. Estimates by The Economist suggest that the average British size 14 pair of women’s trousers is now more than four inches wider at the waist than it was in the 1970s. In other words, today’s size 14 is really what used to be labelled a size 18; a size 10 is really a size 14. 

Could It Be That U.S. Farm Policy Isn’t Making Us Fatter?

Leaders of the food reform movement insist on a wholesale remaking of U.S. agriculture, blaming government policy for industrial farming that supposedly adds food miles to our diets and inches to our waistlines. But their solution, a system of local “foodsheds,” wouldn’t save on greenhouse gas emissions and may well be worse for the environment, an argument advanced by economists here and elsewhere. Now it also seems that the federal farm program blamed for worsening obesity has actually kept us skinnier. 

That is the finding of agricultural economists Bradley Rickard, Abigail Okrent, and Julian Alston, who report (ungated) in Health Economics that “agricultural policies have discouraged food consumption and mitigated the effects of other factors that have encouraged obesity.”

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

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.

A Smart Incentive or Obesity Persecution?

French diet guru Pierre Dukan is urging his government to give extra marks in school for a healthy BMI. The Telegraph reports:

"Obesity is a real public health problem that is rarely – if at all – taken into account by politicians," Mr Dukan told newspaper Le Parisien ahead of the book's launch.

Mr Dukan said his education plan would be "a good way to sensitise teenagers to the need for a balanced diet."

He denied it would punish overweight children, saying: "There is nothing wrong with educating children about nutrition. This will not change anything for those who do not need to lose weight. For the others, it will motivate them."

More Heresy on Obesity

Obesity -- its causes and consequences -- is a frequent topic on this blog (and the podcast too). In the podcast, Eric Oliver argued that "the causal relationship between weight and maladies like heart disease, cancer, and even diabetes has not been firmly established." That certainly strikes some as heresy. In a recent EconTalk podcast, noted heretic Gary Taubes lays out a well-argued position:

Taubes argues that for decades, doctors, the medical establishment, and government agencies encouraged Americans to reduce fat in their diet and increase carbohydrates in order to reduce heart disease. Taubes argues that the evidence for the connection between fat in the diet and heart disease was weak yet the consensus in favor of low-fat diets remained strong. Casual evidence (such as low heart disease rates among populations with little fat in their diet) ignores the possibilities that other factors such as low sugar consumption may explain the relationship.

Anyone for the paleo diet?

For White Girls, a Bigger Penalty for Being Obese

We hear increasingly about the healthcare costs of obesity; but what about social costs?

A forthcoming Economics and Human Biology paper (abstract here; PDF here) by Mir Ali, Aliaksandr Amialchuk, and John Rizzo, titled "The Influence of Body Weight on Social Network Ties Among Adolescents," makes this interesting argument:

We find that obese adolescents have fewer friends and are less socially integrated than their non-obese counterparts. We also find that such penalties in friendship networks are present among whites but not African-Americans or Hispanics, with the largest effect among white females.

Are We Really Losing 1% of GDP Due to Poor Health? Also, a Poll on Polling

We've been writing a lot about obesity recently. First, it was this study about projected future obesity rates, then we covered Denmark's saturated fat tax, which Steve Sexton then criticized for being inefficient. So, if you're tired of reading fat-related posts on our blog, I get it. But as long as reports like this one from Gallup keep coming out, we're going to keep writing about them, especially when they include so many interesting conversation points.

Here are the top-line numbers:

About 86% of full-time American workers are above normal weight or have at least one chronic condition. These workers miss a combined estimate of 450 million more days of work each year than their healthy counterparts, resulting in an estimated cost of more than $153 billion in lost productivity per year. That's roughly 1% of GDP.