A reality check on income and obesity

The Atlantic has a story on the broader health arguments (and growing social stigma) arounds processed foods. The author creatively suggests that there is nothing wrong with processed foods, per se. We should just put better ingredients in them before processing them. The author reasonably suggests that most Americans aren’t going to stop eating processed foods. The path of least resistance to a better American diet is through improving the quality – not reducing the processing – of these foods. The author is angry with “foodies” (meaning, affluent people) because they tend to lead the demonization of processed foods. The author wants to rescue processed foods from their social stigma, and then just make them healthier.

Hey, why not?

Sadly the author manages to derail his otherwise inoffensive article by getting really angry at rich people. Reading the article one almost sees the author stomping down the aisle at Whole Foods. He elbows past a mom in yoga pants to grab a suspicious looking box off the shelf. Interrogating the ingredients section he lets out an audible A-ha! as he spots some nefarious ingredients. Behind him a dread-locked African American gentleman in  striped shirt and bow-tie just ignores him and keeps shopping.

The author, in his fervor to suggest that foodies are full of crap, suggests that the foods affluent people eat are just as bad as the food poor people eat. He points to all the fat and salt in Whole Foods products.

(Before moving on, let’s remind ourselves of the mounting evidence that fat (especially saturated fats) and salt are – in fact – NOT harmful.)

What the author somehow misses is one of the biggest statistical associations in obesity research: namely that affluent people – people who shop at Whole Foods, for example – are just much healthier and much less obese than poor people. Here’s a chart.


What do we make of that? Rich people are eating this food that got the author so worked up. Many of these foods are fatty and salty. And rich people are doing very well compared to less-rich people.

It would be useful for the author to note that his assumptions are directly challenged by recent evidence and long-established statistical associations.

* By the way, don’t let the “Sedentariness” chart throw you off – “sedentary adults are those who report no physical activity or exercise other than at their regular job.” Meaning, if you work construction all day, or care for the elderly, or clean hotel rooms – and are thus bending, walking, and lifting 8-12 hours a day – you will be classified as “sedentary.” If you sit at a desk all day, but make it to the gym for 45 minutes on the elliptical machine, then you are not sedentary. It would thus not be credible to claim that affluent people are leaner because the expend more calories than less-affluent people.

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