Welfare-Enhancing Technological Change and the Growth of Obesity

Published in: American Economic Review, v. 95, no. 2, May 2005, p. 253-257.

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2005

by Darius N. Lakdawalla, Tomas Philipson, Jay Bhattacharya

There has been concern about the dramatic growth in obesity seen in developed countries. This paper advances the view that a neoclassical interpretation of weight growth that relies on changing incentives does surprisingly well in explaining the observed trends, without resorting to psychological, genetic, or addictive models. Welfare-improving technological change has lowered the cost of calories and raised the cost of physical activity by making agricultural production more efficient and work more sedentary. The authors develop the implications of the idea that economic progress (as income growth, food price declines, and sedentary work) leads to weight gain when people behave efficiently. To make concrete the point that obesity is a side effect of progress, they offer an empirical example of how lower food prices (a result of technological change) improve nutrition. Results suggest the difficulty of improving welfare by "rolling back" obesity to earlier levels, because obesity is a side effect of welfare-enhancing progress.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation External publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

Our mission to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis is enabled through our core values of quality and objectivity and our unwavering commitment to the highest level of integrity and ethical behavior. To help ensure our research and analysis are rigorous, objective, and nonpartisan, we subject our research publications to a robust and exacting quality-assurance process; avoid both the appearance and reality of financial and other conflicts of interest through staff training, project screening, and a policy of mandatory disclosure; and pursue transparency in our research engagements through our commitment to the open publication of our research findings and recommendations, disclosure of the source of funding of published research, and policies to ensure intellectual independence. For more information, visit www.rand.org/about/principles.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.