The worldwide economic crisis has caused an enormous number of citizens in high-income countries to become over-indebted, even though they may have severely reduced their standard of living. The rise in personal debt has corresponded with a parallel rise in stress levels, resulting in widespread lack of sleep. Now it appears that over-indebted people have one more worry to add to their list: they are at risk of becoming obese.
A study was conducted in Germany a few months ago that showed a relationship between over-indebtedness and obesity. Dr. Eva Munster and her research team at the University of Mainz have concluded that extreme debt obligations result in more than twice the likelihood that a person will be obese or overweight as compared to a financially stable person
The study defines over-indebtedness as the inability to make timely payments on one’s debts due to the imbalance between income and the cost of living. Low socio-economic status has long been considered a contributing factor to the worldwide epidemic of obesity. However, a direct relationship between indebtedness and obesity had not been considered prior to Dr. Munster’s study.
Are Over-Indebted People More Likely to Become Obese?The goal of the study was to measure the general health of individuals who are over-indebted. Two German population-based surveys provided the data. The first was a telephone survey, which included 8318 respondents from the general population. The second was a questionnaire distributed to the clients of debt counseling centers, to which 949 over-indebted people responded. Both surveys obtained information on socio-economic status including age, sex, education and income. Information was also collected regarding body mass index (BMI, a measure of obesity that is based on one’s height and weight), smoking behavior and depression levels.
Males and females were found to be equally over-indebted. Many of the traits that are common to people of low socio-economic status were present: lower education levels, lower income levels, greater depression levels and greater quotidian tobacco consumption than would be found in the general population. However, the over-indebted subjects were younger than people of low socio-economic status usually are. Also, they were more likely to be overweight or obese.
Obesity A Corollary To PovertyPrevious studies have shown an association between low financial status and being overweight. However, this is the first study to show that financial belt-tightening, in the form of serious indebtedness, could result in a literal belt loosening. One reason is the diminished access to healthy food, researchers speculate. There is an inverse relationship between a food’s caloric content and its cost. High calorie (energy dense) food, such as fatty snacks and sweets, generally costs less. On the other hand, low calorie (low energy) food, such as broccoli or carrots, tends to cost more.
Impoverished people tend to eat low-cost food that has a high-energy content while they simultaneously reduce their energy expenditure – participation in leisure and social activities tends to be curtailed when on a budget. Another factor that contributes to higher BMI may be psychological distress. A person who is in a depressed emotional state may increase food intake to achieve a sense of well-being. Therefore, over-indebted individuals may self-medicate with food to improve mood.
In Germany, approximately 7.6% of households are over-indebted and 33% of residents are obese. Germans have the reputation of being the fattest people in Europe and the government has launched an anti-obesity campaign to address the issue. If it is determined to be so and if the German government is successful in its campaign to end obesity, the people might experience an improvement in their financial condition.
It is not clear from Dr. Munster’s study, however, what the causal direction of the observed relationship between a man’s waistline and his financial stability is. It is not clear if being indebted is a risk factor for becoming obese or the other way around. It has been suggested, for example, that obese individuals face greater difficulty finding a job that will pay the bills, simply because they face psychological (negative body image) and social (prejudice, stigmatization, etc) barriers that are uncommon to normal-weight people.
Extrapolating The DataThe medical community is considering whether the results obtained in the German study can be applied to other countries. In the United States, where the number of people who are over-indebted is on the rise, the study’s results are cause for concern.
Currently, obesity in the United States affects one in four people. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes America as obesogenic, which means that society has created the conditions that promote obesity. This is due in large part to the congressional farm bill, which subsidizes the production of fattening food like corn and other grains, keeping unhealthy foods inexpensive. There is also a suburban culture that mandates long commutes by car and discourages walking. Furthermore, many jobs in the modern, technological workplace are sedentary.
Could over-indebtedness be another obesogenic factor in American society? According to a recent report, more Americans filed for bankruptcy during March of 2010 than any time since the overhaul of the federal bankruptcy laws in 2005.
Implications of the Obesity-Debt LinkThe German study shows that over-indebted people are more prone to obesity. If this is true, with over-indebtedness on the rise in high-income nations, a corresponding rise in obesity should be anticipated. Since obesity is associated with serious health problems such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer, a healthcare crisis should also be anticipated. As developed countries struggle to mitigate the parallel epidemics of obesity and over-indebtedness, access to healthy food by people of low socio-economic status must be considered a top priority.
Matthew Stathis, PhD, is a young entrepreneur who recently left his career as a research scientist at Washington University in order to learn and apply simple business and investment principles. Alarmed by rising rates of obesity in the United States, he maintains a blog where he shares and explains scientific information that can address this issue. Matthew has identified 3 clinically researched diets in the US, including Weight Watchers which you can read about here. Other diet programs that Matthew recommends and features in his site are Medifast, Bistro MD, Diet to Go, and eDiets