What Causes Obesity? And Why has it Grown so Much? An Alternative View

38 Pages Posted: 12 Aug 2010

See all articles by John F. Tomer

John F. Tomer

Manhattan College - Department of Economics and Finance

Date Written: August 11, 2010


The purpose of this paper is to explain the main social and economic facts concerning obesity in a way that substantially improves upon existing economic theory. Existing theory has emphasized classically rational decision makers who maximize utility in food consumption and maximize profit in food production. Also, this theory assumes that a person’s weight gain (or loss) is solely determined by their net calorie consumption, the difference between calories consumed and calories expended.

In contrast to existing theory, a number of recent medical and science writers have explained persuasively that weight gain or loss is not strictly determined by net calorie consumption. These writers have explained that what food people eat and the effect these foods have on hormones such as insulin and hormonal balance are the crucial factors determining whether people add a lot of fat to their bodies and become obese.

To understand the rising prevalence of obesity, it is necessary to take into account the growing infrastructure of obesity. This infrastructure includes food processing firms, notably their behavior relating to the qualities of processed food, their marketing of “junk food,” their substitution of ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, and their food cost reducing technological changes. The fast food industry is also an important element of the obesity infrastructure, particularly its behavior with respect to food cost, marketing, nutritional quality, and calories.

Another factor in rising obesity levels are the human capital resources of people, most notably their social capital, personal capital, and health capital. There is evidence that people who are poor in their social relationships, poor in important personal qualities, and poor in knowledge of food, nutrition, and diet are the ones with the highest rates of obesity.

The essence of the theory is that obesity is the expected result when vulnerable people, those with low intangible capital resources who are experiencing socio-economic stress, experience compulsive hypereating as they encounter the many influences of the infrastructure of obesity. The obese no doubt are genetically susceptible to weight gain, but, more importantly, they have gotten stuck in dysfunctional eating and exercise patterns which societal influences have unfortunately encouraged. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to carefully develop this framework of important relationships explaining obesity and to indicate how this theory differs in crucial ways from the existing economic theory.

Suggested Citation

Tomer, John F., What Causes Obesity? And Why has it Grown so Much? An Alternative View (August 11, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1656809 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1656809

John F. Tomer (Contact Author)

Manhattan College - Department of Economics and Finance ( email )

Riverdale, NY 10471
United States
518-273-1851 (Phone)

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