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A mass phenomenon: The social evolution of obesity


  • Strulik, Holger


This paper proposes a theory for the social evolution of obesity. It considers a society in which individuals experience utility from consumption of food and non-food, the state of their health, and the evaluation of their appearance by others. The theory explains under which conditions poor persons are more prone to be overweight although eating is expensive and it shows how obesity occurs as a social phenomenon such that body mass continues to rise long after the initial cause (e.g. a lower price of food) is gone. The paper investigates the determinants of a steady state at which the median person is overweight and how an originally lean society arrives at such a steady state. Extensions of the theory towards dietary choice and the possibility to exercise in order to lose weight demonstrate robustness of the basic mechanism and provide further interesting results.

Suggested Citation

  • Strulik, Holger, 2014. "A mass phenomenon: The social evolution of obesity," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 33(C), pages 113-125.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jhecon:v:33:y:2014:i:c:p:113-125
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jhealeco.2013.10.007

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Sun, Ruoyan, 2016. "Optimal weight based on energy imbalance and utility maximization," Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, Elsevier, vol. 442(C), pages 429-435.
    2. Barbieri, Paolo Nicola, 2015. "Social Distortion in Weight Perception: A Decomposition of the Obesity Epidemic," Working Papers in Economics 639, University of Gothenburg, Department of Economics.
    3. Caliendo, Marco & Gehrsitz, Markus, 2016. "Obesity and the labor market: A fresh look at the weight penalty," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 23(C), pages 209-225.
    4. Dragone, D. & Ziebarth, N.R., 2015. "Non-Separable Time Preferences and Novelty Consumption: Theory and Evidence from the East German Transition to Capitalism," Health, Econometrics and Data Group (HEDG) Working Papers 15/28, HEDG, c/o Department of Economics, University of York.
    5. Dragone, Davide & Ziebarth, Nicolas R., 2015. "Economic Development, Novelty Consumption, and Body Weight: Evidence from the East German Transition to Capitalism," IZA Discussion Papers 8967, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    6. Dragone, Davide & Ziebarth, Nicolas R., 2017. "Non-separable time preferences, novelty consumption and body weight: Theory and evidence from the East German transition to capitalism," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 41-65.

    More about this item


    Obesity epidemic; Social dynamics; Income gradient; Feeling fat; Feeling unhealthy;

    JEL classification:

    • D11 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Theory
    • I14 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - Health and Inequality
    • Z13 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology; Language; Social and Economic Stratification


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