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Why has the prevalence of obesity doubled?

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The prevalence of obesity has doubled over the last 25 years. We estimate the effects of multiple socio-environmental factors (e.g., physical demands at work, restaurants, food prices, cigarette smoking, food stamps, and urban sprawl) on obesity using NLSY data. Then we use the Oaxaca–Blinder decomposition technique to approximate the contribution of each socio-environmental factor to the increase during this time. Many socio-environmental factors significantly affect weight, but none are able to explain a large portion of the obesity increase. Decreases in cigarette smoking consistently explains about 2–4 % of the increase in obesity and BMI. Food stamp receipt also consistently affects the measures of weight, but the small decrease in food stamp program participation during the period we examine actually dampened the increases in obesity and BMI. Collectively, the socio-environmental factors we examine never explain more than about 6.5 % of the weight increases.

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  1. Finkelstein et al. (2005) and Rosin (2008) review this literature.

  2. We use NHANESIII (1984–1994) to adjust 1979-cohort NLSY data and NHANES 1999–2006 data to adjust 1997-cohort NLSY data.

  3. Food-at-home prices, fast-food prices, the number of restaurants, and cigarette prices are state-specific covariates; urbanization is a county-specific covariate; and the other key explanatory variables and all the demographic characteristics are individual-specific covariates.

  4. We use a linear probability model so decomposition results are independent of the order in which the values of the socio-demographic factors are changed.

  5. We include NLSY observations without age restrictions in the regressions to provide additional within-respondent variation, but we decompose the increase in obesity using similarly-aged NLSY respondents (between the ages of 18 and 27).

  6. As robustness checks, we re-estimate specifications with different age limitations (first, only including respondents who are 20 years of age or older and then without age restrictions) and with different parts of the weight distribution (e.g., for BMI). Results are presented in an online appendix.

  7. The United States Department of Agriculture has not implemented any of these suggestions at this time, but California is in the process of funding a program to provide rebates when recipients use their food stamps to purchase fruits and vegetables.


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Financial support for this research has been generously provided by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), although the opinions expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors.

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Correspondence to Charles L. Baum.

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Baum, C.L., Chou, SY. Why has the prevalence of obesity doubled?. Rev Econ Household 14, 251–267 (2016).

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