The Wage Effect of Fat

Just in time for the holidays, the economists Roy Wada and Erdal Tekin have a new NBER working paper they’ve tactfully named “Body Composition and Wages.” It contains bad news for those planning to overindulge. The abstract reads, in part:

Our results indicate that increased body fat is unambiguously associated with decreased wages for both males and females. This result is in contrast to the mixed and sometimes inconsistent results from the previous research using body mass index (BMI). We also find new evidence indicating that a higher level of fat-free body mass is consistently associated with increased hourly wages. We present further evidence that these results are not the artifacts of unobserved heterogeneity.


As BMI is a rotten indicator of obesity, does that imply that heavily muscled people are paid less also, thus providing a disincentive to exercise beyond a certain trade-off point?


I think it would likely correspond to the halo effect that gives the beautiful a bump. I would imagine weight loss would correspond to some increase in wages. What I'd be interested in is how well this correlation holds up in the professional fields. It's one thing for an hourly wage earner to end up making a little more than other employees, quite another if its a determinant in being a partner, chief resident, etc.

As to the BMI, it works overall when looking at the whole population, as we aren't quite yet a nation of bodybuilders. Certainly there will be people whose BMI does not at all mesh with their bodyfat, but that won't be a significant percentage in the US at this time.


This seems like a pretty technical approach to determining the fat/wage ratio. I would expect more of a psychological approach to this fat/wage ratio. I would expect a collective perception of what qualifies as fat to determine the fat/wage ratio.

I would like to see how this stands up if the majority of the decision makers are consider fat themselves. Would someone less fat still have a better fat/wage ratio?

Note to Freakanomics: I enjoy the blog and topics you cover but it is hard to have a good discussion, provide informed comments or understand the full context of the quotes you provide when you include articles from journals which are not free to access and only provide abstracts. Regardless, carry on your economizing ;-)


I'm inclined towards T (post #1) question that this study is similar to appearance studies on wages from the 1970s-1990s. I'd suggest the book by Dale Leathers "Successful Nonverbal Communication: Principles and Applications" which is a summary of appearance research by communication and sociological scholars.

Colin Chaudhuri

The conclusion in this post is in fact backwards from what is really going on. People are not getting higher paying jobs because they are thinner and more beautiful, they are thinner and more beautiful due to having higher paying jobs. The obesity epidemic in this country is in fact a class/income gap/red state blue state problem wrapped into one package. Poorer people in general are more overweight then wealthier people. Fast food/junk food advertisements are specifically aimed at lower income individuals (on top of obviously children). Due to the market distorting farm bill, excess corn is produced. This causes excess corn to be made into corn syrup and allows highly processed foods to be cheaper. Since the poorer you are, the more likely it is you will be more sensitive to the price of food, it should not be too suprising to learn of the poor diet of many lower income americans. Wealthier Americans are more likely to be educated in proper diets, have access to gyms and access to quality medical advice. Lastly, wealthier east coast cities are on avearge fitter and have healthier diets (as well as more presitigious jobs) then the poorer midwest were the obesity issue is most accute. I like your work Mr. Levitt, but in this case your conclusions are all wrong.




If you'll pay me to sit at my desk posting comments to the Freakonomics blog all day, because you think sitting at a desk is the same as productivity, let me know where to send my resume.

There's plenty of research that healthier employees are more productive employees. Fat people should be paid less. (On average. I'm not talking about any specific fat person who could be plenty productive.)


As intrigued as I am by this...I don't want to pay to read the paper...

Please submit more stuff that we can see for free!


I haven't read the paper or seen any other data, but it seems that they're correlated because they are both related to the same basic qualities of a person.

A highly motivated person is probably going to do well in his/her job and earn a good paycheck. It is also likely that this motivation carries into other aspects of their life, including hitting the gym a few times per week and living a healthy lifestyle. If you think about it, there aren't very many morbidly obese CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Someone who doesn't really care about themselves is probably more likely to have the same attitude towards their job - which means that their wages are probably going to suffer as a result.

Not saying this is true in all cases, but I think that it could be true on average.


oddTodd--I've defended you in the past but now you have a made a super-size woman angry. You are confusing health with weight. Can I show you my last check-up and blood test to confirm my blood sugar and cholesterol were perfect, as well as blood pressure? Would you like to follow me around on weekends when I work in my yard? OK, you weren't picking on ME specifically, I know, because I have a great professional position making healthy money and getting consistently good reviews. But it's frustrating to be lumped together (pun intended) with those who are truly lazy, regardless of size. Please see #8 above which is the best explanation of the whole issue I've seen in this column.


lighten up Todd.


I think there are probably a lot of reasons why people in better shape get paid more. I'm sure that beauty probably has something to do with it (especially in sales-type jobs), but I'd expect that fat people are, on average, less likely to be motivated towards success in all aspects of life.

The highest-paying common job in America (physicians/surgeons) requires extensive knowledge of health as a prerequisite and usually also involves a lot of stressful situations and fast-paced walking. Some of the lowest-paying jobs (i.e. fast food, etc.), meanwhile, make it easy for a person to gain weight.

There are plenty of poor people who are not overweight, so poverty in itself does not cause obesity. Fifty years ago there were poor people, but we didn't have an obesity problem. Generally speaking, obesity is a symptom of poor decision making, and those who make poor decisions are more likely to earn lower wages.


maybe you should lighten up...figuratively speaking of course


well, nikki, I didn't think I was playing the heavy here


I work at a consulting firm and pretty much nobody here is fat (although most are 10-15 pounds over where they want to be because of the long hours.) Similarly, from the top MBA programs that feed firms like mine, I don't think there were any obese people in my 500+ person class. I would submit that driven, anal people that are going to go out and work 70 hours/week are just less likely to be fat. (Either from nervous energy, or the kind of focus on long-term rewards that make them more likely to stick to an exercise/diet regimen.)


I'll submit that this should be looked at in terms of correlation rather than causation. Could it be true that people who are overweight have less drive and therefore make less money?
Also, it seems like the people who have a "higher level of fat-free body mass" and are associated with higher wages might be people who work out and are in good shape, which indicates a higher drive. This higher drive makes it no surprise that they make more money on average.


I have noticed that low-status, high pressure jobs have overweight people, but high-status, high pressure jobs have thinner people. The research on how heart disease amongst the British civil servants might apply here. In a low-status job, your only chance for a break is get a smoke and you more likely have shift changes (and that works havoc on circadian rhythms.) High-status jobs usually mean work in a clean environment. Also low-status jobs have the destructive blue-collar ethos: you are going to die sometime, doesn't matter how much you jog.


Fat is not caused by poor decision making, but by a market that encourages people (espeically poor people) to eat fattening food. If we did not subsidize crappy food (corn syrup ect.) then it would be more expensive, so people wouldn't eat it. Distorted food markets cause fatty food to be more affordable to poor people. This causes both an obesity problem and an obesity differential between rich and poor.


I wish people wouldn't focus so much on food as "the" cause of obesity. Biology tells us that when we eat more than we need for our daily routine, some of the excess gets stored as fat. Its not just eating too much, its also too little activity. I'd like to see a study of the relationship between time spent in air-conditioned cars and obesity. You can see hints of this relationship in the indicator for "Urban" in the paper described - Urban people are probably (on average) walking more and driving less. So quit obsessing so much about food, and incorporate more activity into your daily routine - your BF will drop and your FFM will go up, and your income will increase from both results according to this paper.


I don't think Levitt agrees with this argument. He simply placed it on the table for us to have a discussion about it.