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Sex Differences in Obesity Rates in Poor Countries: Evidence from South Africa

  • Anne Case
  • Alicia Menendez

Globally, men and women face markedly different risks of obesity. In all but of handful of (primarily Western European) countries, obesity is more prevalent among women than men. In this paper, we examine several potential explanations for this phenomenon. We analyze differences between men and women in reports and effects of the proximate causes of obesity -- physical exertion and food intake -- and the underlying causes of obesity -- childhood and adult poverty, depression, and attitudes about obesity. We evaluate the evidence for each explanation using data collected in an African township outside of Cape Town. Three factors explain the greater obesity rates we find among women. Women who were nutritionally deprived as children are significantly more likely to be obese as adults, while men who were deprived as children face no greater risk. In addition, women of higher adult socioeconomic status are significantly more likely to be obese, which is not true for men. These two factors can fully explain the difference in obesity rates we find in our sample. Finally (and more speculatively), women's perceptions of an 'ideal' female body are larger than men's perceptions of the 'ideal' male body, and individuals with larger 'ideal' body images are significantly more likely to be obese.

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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w13541.pdf
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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 13541.

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Date of creation: Oct 2007
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Publication status: published as Case, Anne & Menendez, Alicia, 2009. "Sex differences in obesity rates in poor countries: Evidence from South Africa," Economics and Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 7(3), pages 271-282, December.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:13541
Note: AG HE
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  1. John Komlos & Ariane Breitfelder & Marco Sunder, 2008. "The Transition to Post-industrial BMI Values Among US Children," NBER Working Papers 13898, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Ted Bergstrom, 1995. "A Survey of Theories of the Family," Papers _027, University of Michigan, Department of Economics.
  3. Ulijaszek, Stanley J., 2003. "Trends in body size, diet and food availability in the Cook Islands in the second half of the 20th century," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 1(1), pages 123-137, January.
  4. Anne Case & Angus Deaton, 2006. "Health and wellbeing in Udaipur and South Africa," Working Papers 163, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Research Program in Development Studies..
  5. Costa-Font, Joan & Gil, Joan, 2008. "Generational effects and gender height dimorphism in contemporary Spain," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 6(1), pages 1-18, March.
  6. Hoddinott, John & Haddad, Lawrence, 1995. "Does Female Income Share Influence Household Expenditures? Evidence from Cote d'Ivoire," Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, Department of Economics, University of Oxford, vol. 57(1), pages 77-96, February.
  7. Osmani, Siddiq & Sen, Amartya, 2003. "The hidden penalties of gender inequality: fetal origins of ill-health," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 1(1), pages 105-121, January.
  8. Zagorsky, Jay L., 2005. "Health and wealth: The late-20th century obesity epidemic in the U.S," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 3(2), pages 296-313, July.
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