Does This Recession Make Me Look Fat? (Ep. 61)

(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.”

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I really dislike the "headless fatty" photo trend. (Google it for all kinds of thoughts on it.) Would be great if you guys would abstain.


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.


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


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.


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


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:


Srdjan Andrei Ostric

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.


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:


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.

Srdjan Andrei Ostric

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.