Obesity and the Influence of Society

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Healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food items. This may explain why people with a low income are more likely to develop obesity. But there is more to it...

Healthier Equals Pricier

Remember those old posters where the working man is depicted as a thin, fit man in blue overalls and the boss as a big, overweight man in a tuxedo smoking a cigar?

Today, it turns out to be quite the opposite. The reason why is not hard to find, just visit a supermarket and find the cheapest food items. Without any doubt, you’ll find deepfreeze pizza, lasagna, meatloaf, sausages, and so on.

Energy rich food that is loaded with processed fibers, sugars and fat (which are all used as flavor enriching additions) is much cheaper than lean meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. Adding sugar and fat seems to make nutritional items a lot cheaper, whereas healthy food is just too expensive for families with a low income.

Income, Stress and Food

But it is not just the price of the food that leads to an unhealthier diet in low income families. In general, people that find themselves lower on the social ladder, tend to have more stressful lives. And people with chronic stress react physiologically differently to food than people with lower stress levels.

The stress stimulates the adrenal glands to produce the hormone cortisol, which makes sure that fat is stored in the abdominal area. Which is the unhealthiest place to store fat (see Obesity and the Importance of Fat Distribution).

These social differences are able to explain why there are so many obese people in the wealthiest country in the world, the Unites States. As the U.S. has many rich people, it has much and much more poor people. In comparison, Japan is the country with the greatest equality between its inhabitants. In the U.S. about one third (and rising) of the people is obese, in Japan, this is only 3%.

So, the higher the equality between people, the less obese individuals.

Not Just Social

Attributing obesity solely to social status, however, is a step too far. There are much more obese people than there are people with a low income. Eating out of frustration or excessively consuming alcohol or soft drinks, occurs more in chronically unhappy people.

People able to organize their lives and feel good about themselves, are less prone to excessive stomach fat and obesity, regardless of their social status.


  • Pickett, K.E.; Kelly, S.; Brunner, E.; Lobstein, T. & Wilkinson, R.G. (2005) Wider income gaps, wider waistbands? An ecological study of obesity and income inequality. Journal of the Epidemiological Community of Health. 59, pp. 670 – 674.
  • Wilkinson, R.G. & Pickett, K.E. (2006) Income inequality and population health: A review and explanation of the evidence. Social Science & Medicine. 62(7), pp. 1768 – 1784.


Ron Siojo
Posted on Jan 22, 2011
carol roach
Posted on Jan 22, 2011
carol roach
Posted on Jan 22, 2011