Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Getting Fat and Fit in a Recession

Economists generally expect people to gain weight during a recession. The thinking is people shift their food priorities from high-quality food to the cheap stuff, they eat more low-quality, high-fat food.

Der Speigel ran with this idea a month ago in an column under the heading “Recession Food in the U.S.A.” (that’s a phrase that sounds more clever in the original German). Columnist Marc Pitzke points the finger at McDonald’s, one of the few U.S. restaurant chains whose sales actually increased as the economy went downhill last year. Yet McDonald’s revenue in the first quarter of this year was down 19 percent from its peak quarter last year, joining other fast food chains whose sales are being affected by the recession.

There are problems with the cheap food theory anyway. Some of the most popular low-quality, high-fat foods are expensive. Look at beef and milk, for example. Though marketed as “real food,” in nutritional terms they have to be considered junk food. Their prices have shot up in recent years and consumers are responding by eating less. It is a similar story with pork, fish, breakfast cereal, and ice cream.

There are other factors at work. Stress by itself tends to lead to weight gain. Sleep loss can add to this effect. On the other hand, a recession means fewer hours worked — and more hours available for health-promoting activities such as exercise and cooking. Less money to spend means fewer meals at restaurants, which especially in the United States are known to be fattening — but it also means that health club memberships are lapsing and people are dropping out of yoga classes and sports teams to save money. A more competitive job market increases the incentive for workers to look their best — but the discouragement that can go with a recession can take away the energy that people might put into exercise.

With so many different forces in play, some people are gaining weight and some are losing weight. Those who are already overweight are, on average, gaining more weight, and this is reflected in the way U.S. adult obesity rates jumped up last year. Obesity rates in Republican states increased faster. This effect seems to be tied to attitudes about food ingredients. People who take an uncritical approach to food ingredients, rarely asking questions about how food is made, are more likely to get fat.

West Virginia was the state that gained the most weight last year. This is partly explained by its association with southern food culture, and partly by an exodus of workers, leaving an older and heavier population behind. The Charleston Gazette today encouraged people to “muster enough willpower to stop stuffing starches and become physically active” to overcome the “West Virginia curse.” Yet willpower is not an explanation (and of course, the “starches” reference lacks any scientific merit). No one can make the case that West Virginia has less willpower than its neighbors.

Dietitian Bobbie Randall writes today that she is seeing opposing trends in the over-50 and under-40 crowds. People under 40 years old are more aware of the importance of their physical condition. Randall thinks this might be the result of differing attitudes about health, with “a change in healthcare that will not financially allow the young adult to become ill.” If a single serious illness could wreck your career and possibly lead to poverty and an early death, then staying fit is no joking matter.

At the same time, there is a fitness trend among high achievers. Being in good physical condition will probably make you a little more productive, but it may make you look a lot more productive, and in the job market, that is often what matters. Supervisors and hiring officials perceive fit people as being more productive than they are, even as they overlook many of the accomplishments of fatter workers. If being overweight might keep you from getting a job, or might lead you to be selected for the next round of layoffs, that’s a disadvantage that, this year, many workers feel they can’t afford to have.

I am seeing many of my friends, especially ones between 25 and 50 years old, losing weight. The common element seems to be that people are eating fewer and smaller meals at restaurants. I am part of this trend myself, but the bigger factor in my case was the high price of milk, which led me to give up drinking milk four months ago. I have also cut back on my food spending in other areas. The result is that I weigh 5 percent less than I did at this time last year. All this shows that spending less money on food can lead to eating less and losing weight. That makes good intuitive sense, but it works only for some people. When people decide to spend less money on food, some lose weight, but more gain weight, and it would be nice if we could say more precisely what makes that difference.