Debt: A Surprising Cause of Obesity

by Jeffrey Kosola on October 30, 2010

Obesity is a growing health concern that affects hundreds of millions of people around the world. Today’s tough economic times might increase this number dramatically as more people become over-indebted. Recent scientific research suggests that indebtedness significantly raises the risk of obesity.

According to Eva Münster’s study at the University of Mainz, increased indebtedness doubles the chances a person is obese or overweight. This finding could indeed indicate that our current obesity epidemic will only get worse given the increased number of people who have been struggling with debt since the recent financial crisis.

Researching Indebtedness and Obesity

Münster’s team set out to study the effect of over-indebtedness and being overweight. They defined over-indebtedness as the inability to redeem debt in due time because of the relationship between income and cost of living after a significant reduction in standard of living.

The link between socioeconomic status and various health problems is well known. However, the concept of over-indebtedness as a cause of obesity has not been studied.

Münster used data from two separate statistical studies. One of them was conducted in 2007 and surveyed a population of 949 over-indebted individuals. The other one, which served as a control, took place in 2003 and surveyed 8318 subjects representative of the German population as a whole.

The study analyzed socio-economic factors in these two populations, such as education level and income, as well as demographic parameters, such as age and gender. It also included information on each subject’s Body Mass Index (BMI, a measure of obesity that takes into account ones weight and height) and whether or not participants smoked or suffered from depression. After analyzing the data, it was found that obesity was over two times more prevalent among over-indebted people than people without debt obligations.

In the past, socioeconomic factors such as education and income have been linked to obesity. But interestingly, in Münster’s study, the observed increased risk of being overweight or obese couldn’t be explained by any of these socio-demographic factors. Education and income level were not the causal factors; neither were the age and gender. Instead, over-indebtedness alone appeared adequate to cause obesity.

Why Could Over-Indebtedness Lead to Obesity?

The idea that falling into debt would lead to obesity may seem unlikely at first. However, the researchers suggested that this may have to do with the type of foods those struggling to make ends meet can afford buying.

There is a clear inverse relationship between the cost of food and its caloric content. Healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, are much less calorie dense than unhealthy foods are, like packaged meals and processed snacks. For example, a candy bar contains high amounts of fat and sugar but costs very little. A bag of carrots, on the other hand, is less energy dense, yet it usually costs more. This inverse relationship between the energy density of food and its cost could explain why obesity increases as indebtedness increases: It simply becomes too expensive to eat healthy, low energy, foods.

In addition, researchers suggest depression could play a role. Being over-indebted takes a heavy toll on an individual’s psychological well being. This extra burden could lead to depression. Depression is known to be linked to overeating, because food consumption can create a much needed positive feeling in an otherwise unhappy individual.

It seems that being over-indebted could lead to increased food consumption as people become more depressed by their financial situation. Since the most affordable food is also the least healthy and most energy dense, there is a tendency for higher calorie ingestion. This is a likely explanation for why over-indebtedness leads to obesity. But is this just a German phenomenon?

Over-Indebtedness and the US

This study demonstrates a clear link between indebtedness and obesity. Since all subjects in the study were German, the question arises as to whether these results are relevant to other countries. For some countries, like the Unites States, the findings of this study are possibly very relevant, according to New York physician Dr. Emanuela Taioli.

The United States has an abundance of cheap unhealthy food high in calories. Indeed, the inverse relationship between the cost of food and its caloric content is much higher in the US than in most countries, which suggests that this phenomenon could be even more pronounced here than in Germany.

With the growing number of over-indebted people in the United States along with the already epidemic proportions of obesity, the implications of Münster’s study are grim indeed. Fortunately, researchers acknowledge that public health campaigns to lower the price of healthy foods could prove beneficial.

One thing for certain is that if the increase of over-indebtedness in the US does increase the number of obese people, there will be a rise in health problems across the board. It is well known that obesity increases the risk of cancers, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. A greater amount of health problems will only worsen economic hardship and compound the problem. This shows how important it is that over-indebted people receive proper assistance and education to limit debt. This will not only improve their socio-economic status, it will eliminate a potential risk factor for obesity and poor health.

Matthew Constas is a biologist who is interested in how socioeconomic disparities relate to differences in nutrition, dieting, and weight loss. In his blog, he features weight loss programs that have been clinically researched and offers a Medifast coupon and a promotional code for Weight Watchers diet.