Does Debt Really Cause Weight Gain?

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debt weight gain

If a popular question has a popular answer waiting, that question is a bad one.

And if an academic article publishes that answer, that means that the article is all the more worse.

Does debt cause weight gain? That's like asking if the Big Bang caused the 2008 market crash. The argument proposes that the elements created in the fractions of seconds that followed the birth of the universe eventually created humans, and since human activity led to the market crash, the zealous debater can square the blame on the Big Bang. But no one - not President Obama and not Joe the Plumber - does. It's irrational logic.

Where's the Beef?

So is the correlation between debt, the recession, and weight gain. The figures cited by the recent German study are not encouraging. Only twenty-five percent of a 9000 study population (2,250 people) demonstrated links between obesity and debt, whereas eleven percent of the study population (990) did not. No correlation is directly measured, and the relatively short fourteen percent difference could easily account for anomalies and statistical noise.

The discussion behind the study isn't as fulfilling as certain readers might hope either. Head of the study Eva M√ľnster (University of Mainz, Germany) attributes potential obesity rises (none are in fact cited) to rising health food prices that are prohibitive to lower socioeconomic populations, who are more susceptible to illness. The latter is generally true, but it is used more often to describe trends in infectious disease in areas where malnutrition is likely to exist - not in private, rich countries, to where the study is directed.


Whether or not obesity is an illness is not questioned here. But does it increase during recessions or booms? Data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests neither. All American states have been getting fatter since 1990, a twenty-nine year span that has seen both up and down economies. The most severe recessions of the last century were more likely to make sufferers malnourished, not fat - iconic photos of Great Depression breadlines are glaring proof. And good times mean more investments in restaurants, especially fast food. If you were to parachute from the sky into any random street in America today, odds are that it would be commercial, and that there would be a Wendy's, McDonald's, a Burger King, and a few smaller, local competitors, and that they would all be doing well. People will gain weight by eating big portions of processed food multiple times a day and not exercising. Any contribution by their credit card bill is purely involuntary (unless, of course, they're spending it on fast food).

This defies the Suite101 author's suggestion that comfort food causes weight gain during a recession. Comfort foods like fried chicken will cause weight gain whenever. And if a food is comforting, then someone would be eating it whenever he feels the urge to - not just when he's stressed. If Popeye's and KFC are open seven days a week, it probably means that plenty of happy people eat fried chicken too.

But can stress lead to obesity? This is certainly believable. But that doesn't naturally infer that a recession that causes stress likewise causes obesity. Some stress is good, but excess stress can lead to poor diet, no exercise, and ill health. It can even, as the author writes, lead to depression. But, just as they eat comfort food in good times and bad, people get stressed and can fall into depression whenever - the economy is unlikely to be the only reason. If anything, it can be a catalyst, but there's no direct way to measure that. A more interesting study would be one that relates depression and economies. After the bankruptcy of Argentina in 2001, psychologists and psychiatrists saw business skyrocket. Another interesting study could examine the effect of a "fat tax" on junk food to reduce the health care costs of treating obese patients for otherwise preventable diseases (currently 10% of all costs in America).

Don't Shoot the Waiter

Staying healthy is hard. And there's a big demand for it - look at all those who turn it into a professional living as fitness trainers. But bad food is easy to buy and easy to eat, mostly because it requires no cooking. When junk food is considered cheap, it's because it saves time, and inflation means food prices are always rising. If someone wants to eat healthy, he could start by learning how to cook. And buying health food in bulk, as the author also suggests, doesn't make sense since the healthiest foods are perishable. The best solution is to eat less. Plenty of rich countries have doing this for centuries; France is the most popular example.

Staying healthy is also hard because it requires indefatigable discipline and self-accountability. In rich countries, obesity is most likely to be a personal struggle, like depression; and depression treated en masse just leads to excess prescriptions of anti-depressants that can soften a patient's malaise but can't find its source. So incomplete studies and articles that suggest the blame for one's weight lies with others don't help in that regard. If you have debt, who can you really blame it on? The economy can't always be the whipping boy. In fact, it probably shouldn't ever be. Business cycles would probably be less extreme if consumers, like investors, regulated themselves. No one wants a fat tax.

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