Will empty wallets result in slim waistlines?

One might think so. In fact, the following scenario is entirely logical: an economic downturn begets reduced consumer spending on all goods (including food), begets reduced food consumption, begets a nationwide caloric deficit and reduced obesity prevalence.

For much of our history, leanness was a clear sign of poverty, as only those in the highest socioeconomic strata could afford to eat enough to become overweight. During the mid 18th century, for example, a Rubenesque figure was the ideal among women, the “Fat Man’s Club” was the epitome of aristocracy, while thin men stuffed their shirts to conform to the hefty ideal and heighten their status in society.

In those days, a recession would inevitably result in slimmer waistlines – especially among the wealthy.

Today, unfortunately, emptier wallets may actually contribute to the nation’s already bulging waistlines.

The inverse association between socioeconomic status and likelihood of obesity is well established. In contrast to that seen in the 18th century, the lower the income level of an individual, a family, or a neighbourhood – the higher the probability of excess weight.

How is this possible?

First, the diet of low income families is predominantly composed of inexpensive meats and grains, and added sugars and fats in contrast to the high-quality meats and grains, fresh vegetables and fruit consumed by higher income families. The higher price tag of ‘healthy’ diets is one major reason for this discrepancy.

For example, each 100 gram increment in fruit and vegetable consumption elevates the costs of a diet by the equivalent of $0.29–0.47 per day, meanwhile a 100 gram increase in the consumption of fats and sugars reduces daily diet costs by $0.64.

Thus, calorie for calorie, a Big Mac costs much less than a fresh garden salad.

Reduced income will also favour less caloric output through recreational pursuits. For many individuals confined to stationary work, the main vehicle of energy expenditure (particularly during the winter months) is exercise at a gym. Considering that gym memberships cost approximately $50 per month, these expenses will undoubtedly be sacrificed by individuals faced with financial struggle.

In all, during the current economic crisis, Canadians will likely substitute healthy but expensive food with unhealthy and energy dense but inexpensive food, whilst reducing their leisure-time physical activity, thereby leading to a positive energy balance and increased weight.

While we all hold tightly onto our savings in hopes of another bull market, it is important to remember that cutting costs may be beneficial, so long as we are not cutting out a healthful diet and regular exercise.

Peter Janiszewski

Published on Aug. 27, 2009 in Kingston This Week