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Social dynamics of obesity

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  • Mary Burke
  • Frank Heiland

Abstract

In order to explain the substantial recent increases in obesity rates in the United States, we consider the effect of falling food prices in the context of a model involving endogenous body weight norms and an explicit, empirically grounded description of human metabolism. Unlike previous representative agent models of price-induced gains in average weight, our model, by including metabolic heterogeneity, is able to capture changes in additional features of the distribution, such as the dramatic growth in upper-quartile weights that are not readily inferred from the representative agent setting. We calibrate an analytical choice model to American women in the 30-to-60-year-old age bracket and compare the model’s equilibrium weight distributions to data from NHANES surveys spanning (intermittently) the period from 1976 through 2000. The model predicts increases in average weight and obesity rates with considerable accuracy and captures a considerable portion of the relative growth in upperquantile weights. The differential response to price declines across the distribution depends on the fact that human basal metabolism (or resting calorie expenditure) is increasing and yet concave in body weight, and therefore food price effects on weight tend to be larger for individuals who are heavier initially. The lagged adjustment of weight norms helps to explain recent observations that obesity rates have continued to rise since the mid 1990s, despite an apparent leveling off of price declines. The predicted increase in body weight aspirations agrees with an observed trend in self-reported desired weights, and it defies the conventional wisdom that thinness has been a growing obsession among American women in recent decades.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in its series Public Policy Discussion Paper with number 06-5.

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Date of creation: 2006
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedbpp:06-5

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Keywords: Food prices ; Obesity;

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  1. John Cawley, 2004. "The Impact of Obesity on Wages," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 39(2).
  2. Komlos, John & Baur, Marieluise, 2004. "From the tallest to (one of) the fattest: the enigmatic fate of the American population in the 20th century," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 2(1), pages 57-74, March.
  3. Susan Averett & Sanders Korenman, 1993. "The Economic Reality of the Beauty Myth," NBER Working Papers 4521, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  5. Shapiro, Jesse & Glaeser, Edward & Cutler, David, 2003. "Why Have Americans Become More Obese," Scholarly Articles 2640583, Harvard University Department of Economics.
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  10. Chou, Shin-Yi & Grossman, Michael & Saffer, Henry, 2004. "An economic analysis of adult obesity: results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 23(3), pages 565-587, May.
  11. Darius Lakdawalla & Tomas Philipson, 2002. "The Growth of Obesity and Technological Change: A Theoretical and Empirical Examination," Working Papers 0203, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
  12. Hamermesh, Daniel S & Biddle, Jeff E, 1994. "Beauty and the Labor Market," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(5), pages 1174-94, December.
  13. Jay Bhattacharya & Neeraj Sood, 2005. "Health Insurance and the Obesity Externality," NBER Working Papers 11529, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Christine Himes, 2000. "Obesity, disease, and functional limitation in later life," Demography, Springer, vol. 37(1), pages 73-82, February.
  15. Tomas J. Philipson & Richard A. Posner, 1999. "The Long-Run Growth in Obesity as a Function of Technological Change," NBER Working Papers 7423, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  17. Mark Aguiar & Erik Hurst, 2006. "Measuring trends in leisure," Proceedings, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
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