Spend More, Weigh Less?

If you want to drop some pounds, then perhaps you should drop more cash on the food you eat.  You might think I’m joking, but there is some logic to this.  According to the US Dept of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (where you can find HOURS’ worth of fun numbers; and no, I’m not being facetious, just a geek), I came across the following report.

If you compare the US, UK, Canada and Japan, the chart demonstrates that Americans spend far less on food (almost half of what the Japanese spend) than our economic rivals. In 2009, of all the money Japanese consumers spent, 21.8% went towards food.  That is more than what they spend on housing.  In the US, we only spent 14.9%.  In other words, at the end of the month when you add up all your receipts, Americans only spend approximately $15 out of every $100 on food.  One thing we like in the US is cheap food, and we have some of the cheapest food in the world.

In my “Culture and Politics of Food” class, we just finished covering US Federal subsidies for commodity crops, especially corn.  These policies harken back to the 1970s, when Nixon (and then Ford) were feeling the pressure of rising food costs and the need to get reelected. As a response they appealed to US Dept of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz to do something.  And something he did.  By encouraging, and then enticing through cash subsidies, farmers to plant crops “from fence post to fence post,” Butz increased US grain production.  Butz wanted US crops to be cheap and plentiful – so cheap and plentiful that we could use them for anything (like making sugar – or high fructose corn syrup) and to export them to other countries, like Russia.  And one of the outcomes that Butz bragged about from his tenure as Agriculture Secretary was how little Americans spent on food.

Some researchers and public health advocates claim that our cheap (and therefore abundant) food is a root cause of the US Obesity epidemic.  With food so cheap, we eat lots of it.  And what we eat is not necessarily very satiating, and therefore we continue to eat more.  If cheap food is related to obesity then we would predict from the US labor charts that the US would have a higher obesity rate than Japan (or for that matter, the UK or Canada).

Et voila.  If we surf the web, we can find a paper in the Oxford International Journal of Epidemiology on obesity rates for 2nd and 1st world countries.  And in 2001 the US was top notch with 63% of the population being overweight, and 28% being so overweight they were considered obese.  The UK is missing from the study, but Canada has 47% overweight and 15% obesity rates, while Japan comes in with the staggering 23% overweight and 3% obesity rates.

This is, of course, correlation, and that doesn’t prove that cheap food makes us obese.  But it lends credence to the idea that our culture of food is a bit wacked, and causing us to be heavy.  Americans think a good meal is one where you get tons of food for little money; just look at how many restaurants have super-size deals, or in grocery stores how many boxes say “Get twice as much for only 50% more!”  And if we dig a little deeper into the expenditures from the Dept of Labor,  we see that what money Americans do spend on food, almost half is spent eating outside of the home (41.1%), while in Japan less than a quarter of money for food is spent outside the home (21.4%).