Obesity is an Economic Issue at the Supermarket

Obesity has been linked to everything from genetics to junk food, but a new study indicates that economic status is a key factor in what’s making people fat.

The number of obese grocery shoppers is ten times higher at less expensive grocery stores than at pricier markets, according to a new study. Researchers say these findings show that poverty is a major factor in the American obesity epidemic.

A Seattle-based study looked at the body mass index (BMI) of more than 2000 shoppers at high-priced stores, like Whole Foods, and low-priced supermarkets, like Albertsons. Only four percent of shoppers at the pricier markets were obese, compared with nearly 40 percent of shoppers at the cheaper stores.

The findings were particularly noteworthy given that the obesity rate in Seattle is only 20 percent, much lower than the American average, which is 34 percent.

Researchers noted that shoppers on a budget were more apt to load up on cheaper, more fattening foods, like frozen pizzas, than healthier options, like fresh foods, which are generally more expensive. This disparity between the two lead researchers to believe that obesity is an economic issue.

“If people wanted a diet to be cheap, they went to one supermarket. If they wanted their diet to be healthy, they went to another supermarket and spent more,” Dr. Adam Drewnowski, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, told MSNBC.com.

According to the study, a basket of food at grocery stores in the Seattle area with the lowest prices range between $225 and $280, and obesity rates went no lower than 22 percent. The same basket of food costs $370 to $420 at the highest priced markets in the same region, with obesity rates no higher than 12 percent.

A separate study led by Drewnowski two years ago estimated that a calorie-dense diet cost $3.52 a day compared with $36.32 a day for a low-calorie diet.

The latest research, presented at the recent “Shopping for Health” conference in Seattle, also explored new ways to identify underserved areas, known as “food deserts”, where healthy food is scarce, as well as new ways to identify healthy, affordable and sustainable foods.