Ethics at Work: Low status means poor nutrition

Overeating is a natural reaction to having a subordinate social status.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
While our instincts have been honed for thousands of years to respond to poverty by providing food baskets, I pointed out last week that poor people in wealthy and even developing countries are more likely to suffer from obesity than from malnutrition, and in fact are much more likely to suffer from obesity than wealthy people are. I also pointed out that this situation has been known to observers for close to fifty years, at least since Michael Harrington's influential 1962 book "The Other America". While some observers suggest that poverty and obesity are linked since cheap foods are generally high-calorie ones, I suggested that this hypothesis makes little sense since if high-calorie foods are cheap, no-calorie ones are even cheaper. Any food has many or few calories depending on how much you eat, and fewer calories are always cheaper and more attractive to a person on a limited budget. One alternative explanation, offered last week, is that the real connection is not between income and obesity, but rather a connection between education and obesity, combined with the connection between education and income. Studies have indeed shown that more educated people have less obesity even at the same income level as their less educated countrymen. Therefore, my conclusion is, that the solution to the misery of poverty is not food baskets but rather a more equitable education system. This week I present a complementary explanation, backed up by some published research and some of my own. The explanation is simple: poor people are fat because of their low social position. That is, overeating is a natural reaction to having a subordinate social status. Interestingly, an article on this topic was published in last week's New York Times . To make a long story short, lower-status individuals have more stress, and people under more stress tend to overeat. The Times article refers to "the famous Whitehall study of British civil servants, which found that lower-ranking workers were more obese than higher-status workers. Even though the subordinate workers were neither poor nor lacked health care, their lower status correlated with more health problems." This suggests that countries with more equality, and thus fewer low-status individuals, should have less obesity. And that's exactly what I discovered. Inspired by the Times article and my own, I assembled a data base of countries of the world with obesity rates, levels of income inequality (measured by the Gini coefficient) and per capita income. If you run a regression of obesity levels on levels of inequality, you get a statistically significant relationship. You have to limit the sample to wealthy countries, because if a country is poor on average and has high inequality to boot, the poor just can't afford to get fat. To take some notable examples, the US is the heavyweight champ of both inequality (Gini is 41) and obesity (32 percent). Norwegians and Swedes may not be lightweights, but they are famous for their egalitarianism, and they also weigh in with among the lowest obesity rates in Europe at 6% and 10%. Israel is pretty much on the curve; moderately high Gini (35) and moderately high obesity (22%). While I was at it I checked an old pet theory of mine. Did it ever seem to you that poor countries have ample ladies and skinny men, while rich countries have paunchy men and social X-ray ladies? Evidently there's something to it. The difference between women and men obesity is strongly negatively correlated with per capita income. So it turns out that the usual progressive goals touted as the answer to our social woes - better education and a more equalitarian society - are also a good answer to our nutritional ones.