Obesity’s Impact on Economic Growth and Productivity

By Thierry Malleret, economist

Obesity’s impact on people’s health and wellbeing is well known, but its impact on economic growth and prosperity is less understood. Appositely, new research suggests that a strong positive correlation exists between obesity and economic inactivity, as well as negative correlation between obesity and productivity. In the UK (where obesity is estimated to cost $125 billion every year), this explains in part why economic inactivity rates due to sickness are at record levels. 

A robust correlation exists between economic participation and rates of obesity, with the areas with high rates of obesity also having high rates of economic inactivity. As the researchers make clear, obesity is not a personal responsibility, but is rather caused by working conditions, changes in the built environment and a broken food system. They recommend that the UK government intervene via taxes and subsidies, and break from failed policies focused on individual responsibility. The “Big Food” industry is an obvious target. 


The key reason that global obesity has risen at such an unprecedented pace in human history (more than doubling in the US, for example, between 1980 and 2000, and then “skyrocketing”) is that our diets have radically changed. This has little to do with individual responsibility and choice, or any kind of supposed “moral dereliction.” The big food industry is by and large the culprit. Ultra-processed foods are produced to chemically undermine our ability to feel sated. To which weight loss medications are a chemical response to make those who take them feel full. In the words of Michael Lowe (a professor of psychology), new weight loss drugs are thus “an artificial solution to an artificial problem.” So far so good, but these new medications (will) come at a substantial individual or collective (if borne by the state) cost. Who’s going to foot the bill? Taxing the big ultra-processed food industry is in the cards. 


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