Minimum-wage employees are more likely to be obese than higher wage employees, according to a UC Davis study of a relationship that has long been speculated, but unproven until now.
Most people agree on the relationship between income and obesity, but not the reasons for it or the direction of the relationship, said Paul Leigh, professor of health economics at UC Davis School of Medicine.
Researchers from UC Davis used data collected by the University of Michigan to study the relationship between low income and obesity. Over 6,000 people from 40 states with full-time jobs who identified themselves as the heads of household participated in the six-year longitudinal study.
Deeper research required Leigh and co-author DaeHwan Kim to use a third variable unrelated to obesity to determine if the relationship between low wages and obesity was more than coincidental.
The authors used selected minimum wage variation across states over time, a variable unrelated to obesity, to show the correlation between low income and obesity. Over the past three decades minimum wages have fallen or remained stagnant, leaving full-time workers near the poverty line. During those decades, obesity rates skyrocketed.
“It’s hard to argue that Body Mass Index (BMI) influences state legislature,” Leigh said.
Economists have historically believed that bias against obese workers resulted in lower wages; however, the results of Leigh’s study show a causal relationship of low wages on obesity.
Obesity was determined by a BMI of 30 or more, and was adjusted for various variables such as age, race and gender.
Leigh and other public health scientists identified several possible explanations for the relationship.
Impoverished neighborhoods tend to have more fast food restaurants as well as grocery stores with low cost, high calorie food. The psychological effects of poverty may have an effect on body weight and, according to California’s Obesity Prevention Plan, many low-income families must travel long distances to find healthy foods at affordable prices.
“If you’re struggling to make money, you can’t focus on the food you’re eating,” said Marilyn Townsend, nutrition specialist with the cooperative extension, who agrees with Leigh’s findings.
Nutritionists and public health scientists agree that when all energy is spent on taking care of the basic necessities, people have less energy to spend on cooking.
In a study on food cost among low-income women in four counties, Townsend found it cost more money to pay for a better diet.
“It is very difficult to find prepared food that is high quality and to simultaneously spend little money on it,” Townsend said.
Convenient pre-packaged and prepared foods are usually filled with much more sugar and fat than food that is self-prepared, and are tested continuously to perfect taste.
“I will acknowledge that it tastes great,” Leigh said of pre-prepared food. “For $18 you can feed a family of four at McDonald’s. The byproduct is obesity, but who cares, it’s a long term consequence, and it’s the cheapest way to feed your family.”
GABRIELLE GROW can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.