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Why Is the Obesity Rate So Low in Japan and High in the U.S.? Some Possible Economic Explanations


  • Senauer, Benjamin
  • Gemma, Masahiko


More than one billion adults are overweight worldwide, and more than 300 million of them clinically obese, raising the risk of many serious diseases. Only 3.6 percent of Japanese have a body mass index (BMI) over 30, which is the international standard for obesity, whereas 32.0 percent of Americans do. A total of 66.5 percent of Americans have a BMI over 25, making them overweight, but only 24.7 percent of Japanese. This paper examines the reasons Japan has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the world and the United States one of the highest, giving particular attention to underlying economic factors that might be influenced by policy changes. The average person in Japan consumes over 200 fewer calories per day than the average American. Food prices are substantially higher in Japan, but the traditional Japanese dietary habits, although changing, are also healthier. The Japanese are also far more physically active than Americans, but not because they do more planned physical exercise. They walk more as part of their daily lives. They walk more because the cost of driving an automobile is far higher in Japan, whereas public transportation is typically very convenient, but normally requires more walking than the use of a car. In terms of policy solutions, economic incentives could be structured to encourage Americans to drive less and use public transportation more, which would typically also mean walking more.

Suggested Citation

  • Senauer, Benjamin & Gemma, Masahiko, 2006. "Why Is the Obesity Rate So Low in Japan and High in the U.S.? Some Possible Economic Explanations," Working Papers 14321, University of Minnesota, The Food Industry Center.
  • Handle: RePEc:ags:umrfwp:14321

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Tomas J. Philipson & Richard A. Posner, 1999. "The Long-Run Growth in Obesity as a Function of Technological Change," Working Papers 9912, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
    2. David M. Cutler & Edward L. Glaeser & Jesse M. Shapiro, 2003. "Why Have Americans Become More Obese?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 17(3), pages 93-118, Summer.
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    Cited by:

    1. Abigail M. Okrent & Julian M. Alston, 2012. "The Effects of Farm Commodity and Retail Food Policies on Obesity and Economic Welfare in the United States," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 94(3), pages 611-646.
    2. Bradley J. Rickard & Abigail M. Okrent & Julian M. Alston, 2013. "How Have Agricultural Policies Influenced Caloric Consumption In The United States?," Health Economics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 22(3), pages 316-339, March.
    3. Radwan, Amr & Gil, Jose M., 2015. "Can Price Intervention Policies Improve Diet Quality in Spain?," 2015 Conference, August 9-14, 2015, Milan, Italy 212698, International Association of Agricultural Economists.

    More about this item


    obesity; food consumption; food prices; physical activity; walking; automobile costs; Food Consumption/Nutrition/Food Safety; Health Economics and Policy; D12; I 11;

    JEL classification:

    • D12 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Empirical Analysis


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