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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.)