mess of details. (five_feet_small) wrote in ed_ucate,
mess of details.

obesity & technology

in light of a few recent posts that i've seen, i thought it would be a good time to post this.

as i've previously mentioned, i'm an econ major. recently we discussed the american obesity epidemic from an economic perspective. it was really interesting and informative so i thought i would try to transmit the information to you guys somehow. our focus was an article by Cutler, Glaesar & Shapiro, titled 'why have Americans become more obese?'. the entire article can be found here. it is really lengthy so i couldn't post the entire thing. i am posting the introduction (it's slightly long but it sums up the paper really well) and a few quotes from the body of the study. the article itself isn't that hard to understand if you're really curious, and the tables/figures at the end are really interesting if you are as left-brained as i am. anything with caloric break-downs, right?

i know it may seem like too much information but i personally found it interesting; it EDUCATES. i always assumed the rise in obesity came from too much taco bell & huge portions & sitting around all day... i thought the last section on obesity & self-control was particularly good.


In the early 1960s, the average American male weighed 168 pounds. Today, he weighs nearly 180 pounds. Over the same time period, the average female weight rose from 142 pounds to 152 pounds. The trends in very high weight are even more striking. In the early 1970s, 14 percent of the population was classified as medically obese. Today, obesity rates are two times higher. Weights have been rising in the US throughout the 20th century, but the rise in obesity since 1980 is fundamentally different from past changes. For most of the 20th century, weights were below levels recommended for maximum longevity (Fogel, 1994), and the increase in weight represented an increase in health, not a decrease. Today, Americans are fatter than medical science recommends, and weights are still increasing. While many other countries have experienced significant increases in obesity (the UK is a prime example), no other developed country is quite as heavy as the U.S.

What explains this growth in obesity? Why is obesity higher in the U.S. than in any other developed country? As an accounting statement, people gain weight if there is an increase in calories taken in or a decrease in calories expended. As such, we begin by examining whether increased obesity results from decreases in exercise or increases in food consumption. Although we cannot be absolutely certain of the split, the evidence suggests increased caloric intake is far more important than reduced caloric expenditure in explaining recent increases in obesity. Calories expended have not changed significantly since 1980, while calories consumed have risen markedly.

But this just pushes the puzzle back a step: why has there been an increase in calories consumed? We propose a theory based on the division of labor in food preparation. In the 1960s, the bulk of food preparation was done by the family. People cooked their own food and ate it at home. Since then, there has been a revolution in the mass preparation of food that is roughly comparable to the mass production revolution in manufactured goods that happened a century ago. Technological innovations, including vacuum packing, improved preservatives, deep freezing, artificial flavors, and microwaves, have enabled food manufacturers to cook food centrally and ship it to consumers for rapid consumption. In 1965, a married women who didn’t work spent over two hours per day cooking and cleaning up from meals. In 1995, the same tasks take less than half the time. The switch from individual to mass preparation lowered the time price of food consumption and led to increased quantity and variety of foods consumed.

Our theory is perhaps best illustrated by the potato. Before World War II, Americans ate massive amounts of potatoes, largely baked, boiled or mashed. They were generally consumed at home. French fries were rare, both at home and in restaurants, because the preparation of French fries requires a significant amount of peeling, cutting and cooking. Without expensive machinery, these activities take a lot of time. In the post-war period, a number of innovations allowed the centralization of French fry production... Today, the French fry is the dominant form of potato and America’s favorite vegetable. This change shows up in consumption data. From 1977 to 1995, total potato consumption increased by about 30 percent, accounted for almost exclusively by increased consumption of potato chips and French fries.

The technical change theory has several implications, which we test and find support for empirically. First, we show that increased caloric intake is largely a result of consuming more meals rather than more calories per meal. This is consistent with lower fixed costs of food preparation. Second, we show that consumption of mass produced food has increased the most in the past two decades. Third, we show that groups in the population that have had the most ability to take advantage of the technological changes have had the biggest increases in weight. Married women spent a large amount of time preparing food in 1970, while single men spent little. Obesity increased much more among married women. Finally, we show that obesity across countries is correlated with access to new food technologies and to processed food. Food and its delivery systems are among the most regulated areas of the economy. Empirically, countries that are more regulatory and that support traditional agriculture and delivery systems have lower rates of obesity.

While the medical profession deplores the increase in obesity, the standard economic view is the opposite. Lower prices for any good-- either monetary or time costs-- expand the budget set and make people better off. But self-control issues complicate this interpretation. If people have difficulty controlling how much they eat, lowering the time costs of food consumption may exacerbate these problems. Certainly, the $30-$50 billion spent annually on diets testifies to the self-control problems that many people face. In the last part of the paper, we consider the welfare implication of lower food production costs in a model where individuals have self-control problems. Such a model helps explain why the increases in weight have been biggest at the upper end of the weight distribution, where self-control problems are the most severe. For the vast majority of people, however, price reductions lead to welfare increases."


"Similarly, income changes cannot explain our results. Income and obesity are negatively associated today, at least for women. Furthermore, for much of the period real incomes were not increasing greatly at the bottom of the income distribution, but obesity for those groups still increased. Obesity for women is strongly negatively associated with education...But for men, obesity is relatively independent of education, and has been for the past few decades."

[note: what does this say about societal pressure for women versus men?]


"Microwaves were developed in the 1940s as an outgrowth of radar technology, and became available for a reasonable consumer in the 1970s. As late as 1978, only 8 percent of American households had microwaves. By 1999, 83 percent of American households had microwave ovens. Other kitchen appliances, such as refrigerators, have also improved."

[note: my prof said that european households generally have very small fridges, whereas in american every family has at least one huge one. he said that we can go to the groc store and buy ten lean cuisine dinners whereas that would be very uncommon there. in europe, i've heard, there are local food markets everywhere which sell fresh fruit, bread, and milk that expires in 48hrs, due to the lack of processing. how different.]


“Somewhat surprisingly, most of the increase in calories is from calories consumed during snacks. Dinnertime calories have actually fallen somewhat. Americans are not just eating more; they are spreading their consumption out over the day. Consistent with this, the increase in caloric intake is because of greater frequency of eating, not eating more at any one sitting. The finding that increased caloric intake is from more snacks rules out two obvious accounting explanations for increased obesity-- The first is that obesity is a result of increased portion sizes in restaurants (Young and Nestle, 2002). If this theory were true, calories at main meals, particularly dinner, would have increased. Similarly, the evidence also rules out the view that fattening meals at fast food restaurants have made America obese.”

“Reductions in the time cost of food preparation should lead to an increase in the amount of food consumed. This increase can occur through several channels:
(1) increased variety of foods consumed,
(2) increased frequency of food consumption,
(3) a switch to high calorie/high flavor prepared foods which had previously been unavailable, or
(4) an increase in the overall consumption of each individual food item.

As fixed costs decline, we would expect most of the increase in calories to come from increased variety of foods and frequency of food consumption, rather than more food during each meal. Thus, the theory predicts that obesity should increase the most among groups who formerly made most of their food in the house, and should have increased the least among groups that ate out more...Basically, women spend less time preparing food now than they used to, and they are much more obese than they used to be.”

People in countries with more price controls are much less obese than people in countries without price controls. The few observations still suggest a pattern. Countries with more food laws have lower levels of obesity. Recent research has highlighted the link between regulation and the structure of the legal system (La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, Shleifer, and Vishny, 1999). Countries with a common law legal origin (the British model) are much less regulated than are countries with a civil law origin (the French model). The fifth column includes a measure of civil law legal origin to capture the overall prevalence of regulation. More regulated countries are 7 percent less obese than are less regulated countries.”


"The cost of food consumption includes time and money costs. As time costs fall, one would expect [demand for food to increase accordingly].

This effect could be large enough to explain the increase in consumption we observe. We suspect, however, that this is not the only reason why lower time costs lead to increased consumption... Rather, self-control issues are likely to be important as well. The standard model of consumption involves rational individuals-- people decide how much to consume on the basis of price and income, fully accounting for the future health consequences of their actions. But at least some food consumption is almost certainly not rational. People continue to overeat, despite substantial evidence that they want to be thinner and try to lose weight (there is a $30 to $50 billion annual diet industry). Food is addictive and brings immediate gratification, while health costs of overconsumption occur only in the future. Maintaining a diet is also very difficult. People on diets frequently yo-yo; their weight rises and falls as they start and stop dieting. This effect could be large enough to explain the increase in consumption we observe.

Consider an individual who discounts all times in the future at a rater higher than the pure time discount rate, but trades off consumption in future states at the time discount rate. Such an individual will always want to begin a diet tomorrow (because the long-term benefits justify the lost utility tomorrow) but not today (because the immediate gratification from food is high). Reductions in the time cost of food preparation may significantly reduce the welfare [overall health, well-being, standard of life] of this person, by increasing the immediate consumption value of food relative to the long-term health costs.

The logic of this argument can be illustrated by thinking about a hungry worker and a vending machine filled with cookies. If the vending machine is 10 feet away, a person might each mid-afternoon cookies, even if he is on a diet (the diet can always start tomorrow). The same person, however, might not be willing to walk 10 minutes to and from the store to get cookies, or to spend a half-hour baking cookies (if at home). The benefits 10 minutes or one-half hour down the road are too far away to justify it. It is a common feature of many behavioral change programs-- smoking and drinking cessation, weight loss-- that they encourage keeping the offending items as far away as possible. Raising time costs is believed to reduce consumption."

[note: this goes along w/ the arguement that eating disorders are so hard to overcome because you can't just abstain/remove yourself from them, you have to learn to live in moderation]


"The usual economic logic suggests that this time cost savings and the corresponding increase in consumption represent pure economic benefit. However, the presence of self-control problems make it possible that the changes have been welfare reducing. Our model shows that some people were likely hurt by the improved technology, although most have surely benefited. Thus, while the rise in obesity has significant health costs, those costs are likely offset by the dramatic savings in time of food preparation."

-if you look at table 5, you can see that activity levels HAVE increased since 1965

-when we were discussing this in class, my prof showed a table that compared the different average daily caloric intakes for various countries. france averaged around 3500cals a day, which is higher than our average. but it's interesting, because they are one of the most regulated countries (as discussed above) and their obesity levels are much lowers than ours because of the quality of their food-- less processed.

-it's sort of sad, the cycle this perpetuates. i would love to see a shift in society towards less processed and technologically engineered foods, but now that we have the time and money benefits, i doubt it would happen. i don't think the need to be healthier could sustain a movement like that; only a desire to lose weight. and even then, it would be short-lived or self-defeating. i am grateful to be so technologically advanced but it can almost be a curse at times. it's sort of disgusting how mechanical the food preparation process has become.

-also, this is really interesting:


**all consumer prices increased 137% (100% would have been constant, so this means a 37% increase in the price level)

fresh fruit 276%
fresh veggies 252%
dairy products 96%
frozen food 83%
frozen potatoes 93%
potato chips 77%
ground beef 90%
soda 53%

therefore, fruit & vegetables got relatively MORE expensive while everything else got cheaper.

-i don't have any specific discussion questions to follow this (um, if anyone made it this far) but any thoughts you have would be cool. :)

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