Despite numerous studies, economists don't have a great
explanation for the obesity epidemic.
But even though we don't know what exactly is the main driver behind
the chunk-ification of America, we may be getting a better sense of
what isn't responsible.
I wrote in June about one study which found no link
between fast food consumption and obesity. Now, a new study finds no
evidence that the proliferation of Wal-Mart
stores, many of which are packed with cheap processed foods, has led to
weight gains. In fact, the existence of a big box retailer in an area
seems to actually decrease weight slightly.
Charles Courtemanche from University of
North Carolina at Greensboro and Art Carden
of Rhodes College in Tennessee looked at county-level data on big box
stores (different versions of Wal-Mart stores as well as Costcos) and
survey data which captured residents' demographic information as well
as eating, shopping, smoking, drinking, and exercising habits. They
found that one additional regular Wal-Mart store (which doesn't sell
groceries) was associated with a drop of 0.5 pounds for a person of the
average height. An additional Super Wal-Mart, which does sell
groceries, was associated with a weight drop of 0.18 pounds.
The researchers think this happens because cheaper goods
Wal-Mart allow shoppers to spend more of their budget on relatively
expensive healthier foods. Providing some support to their assertion,
when Courtemanche and Carden broke down their results by income, they
found that the lowest-earning people saw the most weight loss:
This is not surprising since low-income
presumably be the most sensitive to modest changes in prices and
Courtemanche and Carden also found evidence that
purchases of fruits
and vegetables increased after the introduction of a big box retailer.
But the news isn't all good: An additional Wal-Mart also led to
decreased exercise, though the reasons for this are somewhat
mysterious. The researchers suggest a couple of reasons:
...these stores may in fact reduce functional
causing a shift from walking-intensive downtown shopping to
driving-intensive suburban shopping. Alternatively, if people are
losing weight due to reduced fat intake, they may feel less of a need
Neither of these is very convincing though. Still, overall
Courtemance and Carden's paper may mean that Wal-Mart's slogan -- "Save
money. Live better." -- may have a pound of truth to it.
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