Income and Education – The Hidden Culprits Behind of Obesity

 This is the final project for my English class. The assignment was to come up with a controversial topic that somehow relates to me and write for it or against it. I chose obesity because I do my best to live an active and healthy lifestyle. I haven’t received the results of the assignment yet, since I just turned the final draft in today, but I think the paper turned out fairly well.

Obesity is an epidemic that is running rampant across our country. More and more children and adults are becoming victim to this plague that grows increasingly difficult to break free from with each added pound. In the past 40 years, the obesity rate in the United States has increased more than 50%. While there are many reasons behind why a person becomes obese, the single greatest relating factors in obesity are a person’s income and education levels. Because of this, the obesity rate will continue to rise because persons with low income and low education levels cannot afford healthier food items and do not fully understand the relationship between a healthy lifestyle and personal health.

          In the US, obesity levels have risen to a staggering number. Obesity is reached when a person has a body mass index (BMI) of 30% or higher. A person’s BMI is calculated by weight and height. As of August 2012, 35.7% of adults were obese while 16.9% of adolescents were obese. For low-income preschoolers, that number jumps to 30.5% being overweight or obese. In a study conducted in 2009, it is concluded that “Overweight and obesity are inversely associated with socioeconomic status“ (Salonen et al. 1). In 2010, the state with the highest level of obesity was Mississippi with a 34% obesity rate while the state with the lowest obesity rate was Colorado at 21%, a 13% difference. What are the differences between these two states? What is it that would cause such a wide difference in the percentage of residents who are obese? The biggest differences between these two states are state income levels and state education levels.

          In 2011, the state income level for Mississippi was averaged at about $39,078 per family while Colorado pulled in about $59,803 per family. That is a difference of $20,725 per family. The 2007-08 graduating class for Mississippi was 63.9% while Colorado boasted a graduating class of 75.4%. The difference there is 11.5%. These statistics, along with the obesity rate for the two states, show that there is a correlation between income, education and obesity.

          What is it about income that affects a person’s likelihood to become obese? Persons with a lower income do not have the means to procure healthier versions of food because the healthiest foods on the market are statistically the highest priced. The March 2013 national average for lean ground beef is $4.87 per lb while ground chuck is averaged at $3.42 per lb. A pound of apples comes in at $1.40 while the double cheeseburger from McDonald’s costs $1.00. With price differences such as these, it is no surprise that low-income individuals would rather spend their money on the less healthy food items because their money buys more.

          While unhealthy foods have cheaper prices in most cases, eating less healthy options costs more in the long run in terms of health complications and medical care. Healthy foods may have a higher price for each individual item at the time of purchase, but they provide greater control over what a person puts into their body and save money on life-long health care. Spending less while buying more seems like a good plan, but the long-term health effects of eating the cheaper, less healthy foods ends up costing more in the long run.

          Another way income affects obesity is that persons who have lower income tend to live in neighborhoods that either don’t have public recreation areas, such as parks or playgrounds, or the public recreation areas those neighborhoods do have are in disrepair. Low-income neighborhoods also have a higher crime rate, which leads families to spend more time indoors in an effort to stay safe. This leads to a more sedentary lifestyle where the amount of calories consumed is far greater than the calories burned in normal daily activity.

          While a lack of outdoor activity options does not preclude a person from engaging in indoor exercise, most low-income or impoverished families are single-parent households where the parent works either multiple jobs or odd-hour jobs, making it so children are left unsupervised and the parent does not have the means nor the time to make sure the children are engaged in physical activity as well as not always having the time to engage in physical activity themselves. Sports teams and fitness centers are usually not an option for lower income families because the cost for these activities is usually more than the family can afford or want to spend.

          Along with a shortage of outdoor recreation in lower income neighborhoods, there is also a shortage of grocery stores that stock affordable fruits and vegetables. Poorer neighborhoods have higher instances of fast food restaurants that provide cheap and severely unhealthy meals and convenience stores that stock cheap and nutritionally deficient food items.

Even if there were a higher number of grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods, it is still more likely that families would continue to purchase the less-healthy boxed foods instead of healthier produce items because these items are cheaper and quicker to prepare. Those lower income families that work multiple jobs or work odd hours do not always have the time to spend an hour or two an evening preparing a healthy meal before sitting down to eat and thus need food items that can be prepared quickly and with a minimum of effort.

While various studies show a correlation between low income and obesity, the theory still remains that low-income individuals are less likely to become obese due to lack of funds to overindulge in favorite foods, whether they be healthy or not. Persons with higher income are widely regarded as the most susceptible to becoming obese due to the propensity to expend more on eating out or spending more on richer foods that contain a higher fat content. While that theory does have some basis in fact, persons with higher income are also more able to afford gym memberships or the purchase of home exercise equipment, have easier access to recreational areas, have more time to spend maintaining a healthier lifestyle and can better afford to spend money on weight-loss programs such as Jenny Craig, Nutrisystems and Weight Watchers. Persons with higher income can, in fact, indulge in a wider variety of less-healthy options, but they also can indulge in a plethora of activities to counter the effects of the less-healthy foods they consume.

          Having a low income by itself does not lead to a person becoming obese or having a higher likelihood of being obese. Hand in hand with low income leading to obesity is a low level of education. The averaged costs for in-state tuition at a public four-year college for the 2012-2013 school year is $22,261 while a private four-year college is averaged at $43,289. With income levels around $39,000, residents of Mississippi may find this too high of a mountain to climb.

          While education may seem an unlikely factor in the obesity epidemic, higher education levels have been linked to positive lifestyle habits, personal well-being, health awareness and a better understanding of food content. Receiving a higher education also helps a person develop the discipline necessary to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle.

          According to a study done by Michael J. Grabner, Ph.D., adding one year of higher education can lead to a 1-4% decrease in BMI and decrease the likelihood that a person will develop obesity by 2-4%. (3). Dr. Grabner also cites a study done by B. MacInnis in 2008 where Mr. MacInnis found the odds of a person becoming obese are decreased by 70% just by completing a college education. (6).

          Higher education levels correlate with persons understanding the relationship between the foods they eat and their own health and well-being. When a person understands how the performance of their body is affected by the different food types put into it, that person can make better decisions in regards to nutrition and food consumption levels. This understanding also includes the relationship between how exercise and physical activity help keep a person vitalized and in good health.

          While it may appear common sense that unhealthy foods lead to higher weight gain, most individuals do not understand how to properly use food to the maximum benefit and most people are looking at the taste of a food and not the nutritional value. While fruits and vegetables are not as tasty as a Big Mac from McDonald’s or a Jr Bacon Cheeseburger from Wendy’s, these low-calorie foods pack in several vitamins and minerals that help boost the immune system and convert into energy. In a study done of Colorado residents in 2007, 30% of normal-weight adults ate the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables while only 19% of obese adults could say the same.

          There are many who decry the various studies done that link education levels to obesity levels. Opponents to this way of thinking posit that those with lower income still have a basic understanding of how an excess intake of food will lead to a proportionate gain in weight and that healthier foods are better for the body than greasy, fatty foods. While it is true that all individuals possess a basic understanding of these concepts, those with higher education levels have a better and more complete understanding of how each individual food type affects the body and how to best utilize the different food groups to achieve better health.

          As obesity levels across the country continue to spiral higher, there is little hope that these numbers will go down by drastic margins when the levels of low income and low education do not improve. With the prevalence of people who cannot afford to buy healthier food items and those who do not understand the relationship between personal health and a healthy lifestyle, obesity will continue to rise.

Works Cited

  • Ogden, C. L., et al. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among U.S. children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association, 307(5), 483-490.
  • “BEA: News Release: State Personal Income 2012.” US Department of Commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis. N.p., 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • “Adult Obesity Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N.p., 21 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • “What Causes Overweight and Obesity?” National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. N.p., 13 July 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • “Why Low-Income and Food Insecure People Are Vulnerable to Overweight and Obesity.” FRAC: Food Research and Action Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • Schmeiser, Maximilian D. “Expanding Wallets and Waistlines: The Impact of Family Income on the BMI of Women and Men Eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit.” Health Economics 18.11 (2009): 1277-294. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. 13 Jan. 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • Clark, Kim. “College Tuition, Other Costs Climb Again This Year.” CNNMoney. N.p., 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • Salonen, Minna K. “Role of Socioeconomic Indicators on Development of Obesity from a Life Course Perspective.” Journal of Environmental and Public Health 2009 (2009): n. pag. 16 Mar. 2009. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

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