People get fatter as their country gets richer

Man getting waist measured at doctor's office.

Release Date: May 13, 2020

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“Given the highly significant health and economic costs of obesity and the clear importance of economic development, it is vital to gain an in-depth understanding into the association between obesity prevalence and national income. ”
University at Buffalo School of Management

BUFFALO, N.Y. — As a nation’s coffers grow, so do the waistlines of its citizens, according to new research from the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Recently published in PLOS ONE, the study found that around the world, obesity rises along with national income. A 1% increase in per capita income is associated with a 1.23% and 1.01% increase in obesity among adult males and females, respectively.

“As most people currently live in low- and middle-income countries with rising incomes, our findings underscore the urgent need for effective policies to break—or at least weaken—the relationship between income growth and obesity,” says Debabrata Talukdar, PhD, professor of marketing in the UB School of Management. 

Talukdar and his fellow researchers analyzed 40 years of data across 147 countries to observe the relationship between national income and the prevalence of obesity, and how other factors like governmental policies, globalization, urbanization and female participation in the workforce can moderate this relationship. They also forecast future global trends in obesity prevalence using the latest available national income growth projections. 

According to the study, more than 2.1 billion people—nearly 30% of the global population—are overweight or obese, with an adverse economic impact of about $2 trillion each year. And they project obesity to increase, growing at an average annual rate of 2.47% across the countries they studied.

“Given the highly significant health and economic costs of obesity and the clear importance of economic development, it is vital to gain an in-depth understanding into the association between obesity prevalence and national income,” says Talukdar.

The challenge, they say, is how to promote economic growth without adversely impacting the natural environment and personal health and well-being. They recommend policies like national nutrition plans, food taxes and subsidies to incentivize healthy eating, restricting children’s exposure to marketing of unhealthy foods and public awareness programs about diet and exercise. 

“It will require a concerted, policy-driven effort on multiple aspects of the current socio-economic system,” says Talukdar.

Talukdar collaborated on the study with Satheesh Seenivasan, PhD, senior lecturer in the Monash Business School at Monash University; and Associate Professors Adrian Cameron, PhD, and Gary Sacks, PhD, from the Deakin University School of Health and Social Development.

The UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit mgt.buffalo.edu.

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School of Management
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kjmanne@buffalo.edu