Cheap Foods May Be Feeding the Obesity Epidemic

Obesity trends in the US may vary less than previously thought between socioeconomic and racial groups

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Despite trends of people exercising more and having better access to healthy foods, obesity is still a growing and widespread problem in the United States.

New research linking obesity and factors like race, income and education has found that all groups examined were gaining weight at almost the same rate.

The study concluded that low food prices may be to blame, and the researchers suggested that the fix may be in government policy changes like taxes on unhealthy food and incentives for healthy living.

"Talk with your doctor about how to best manage weight and address obesity."

Ruopeng An, PhD, professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led this research.

Examining the relationship between obesity and socioeconomic factors like income, education, geography and ethnicity, Dr. An and his colleagues considered volumes of previously published scientific data from around the world.

These researchers concluded that the prevalent theory that poor, uneducated people with less access to healthy foods tend to be more overweight was not supported by data.

"A common misbelief is that the obesity epidemic reflects increasing social disparities and that the largest weight gains are concentrated in groups identifiable by race, ethnicity, income, education or geography," he said in a press statement.

"And it's true that if you look at the national data for any one point in time, it's not hard to figure out, for example, that the people with the lowest education tend to have the highest obesity rate. Everyone buys this argument. But what is less obvious is how surprisingly similar the obesity trend is for all groups."

Dr. An used previous studies to compare body mass index (BMI), a ratio of an individual’s weight and height, and education level, among other markers.

Dr. An and team found that between 1986 and 2012, people with college degrees, some college, a high school diploma, and less than a high school diploma showed BMI increases over time at very similar rates. 

Similarly, the researchers found that while instances of obesity were higher among blacks than whites, both groups were getting heavier at almost the same rate over time.

"The gap between groups is secondary to the increase that all groups experience over time," Dr. An said. "So a reversal of the obesity epidemic would need universal intuitions rather than a focus on certain groups.”

In their paper, Dr. An and colleagues recommended large-scale policy changes designed to “nudge” people toward healthier diets and more active lifestyles.

According to this research team, such policy changes might include “taxes on soft drinks or fast food or subsidies for healthier foods or sports activities.”

The real driver of obesity, these researchers found, was “historically low food prices relative to income.”

This study was published online May 22 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the RAND Corporation. The authors did not report any relevant conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
May 23, 2014
Last Updated:
May 27, 2014