Study Ties Income, Schooling to Obesity

Women Are Found to Be Disadvantaged

Overweight women have lower incomes, less schooling, and are less likely to be married, a Harvard researcher reports in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

A paper written by Steven L. Gortmaker of the Harvard School of Public Health and Dr. William Dietz of Boston's New England Medical Center describes lower socioeconomic status among overweight young adults.

Gortmaker, who is a senior lecturer in the School of Public Health's department of health and social behavior, and his colleagues studied 10,039 young adults over seven years.

They found that overweight women are 20 percent less likely to get married, finish fewer years in school, have a 10 percent higher poverty rate and earn $6,710 less in annual household income.

In the same study, Gortmaker reports that overweight men did not exhibit the same extent of socioeconomic differences as women. But men who were one foot shorter in height than average showed a 10 percent increase in poverty rate and earned $3,000 less income per year.


"One of the interesting issues is that among women there may be more discrimination focused on obesity, but for men it was on height," Gortmaker said.

All of the effects in women were isolated to obesity alone, not low self-esteem, aptitude test scores or socio- economic background.

Gortmakersaid the study verifies the existenceof discrimination against overweight people. Hesaid it refutes the popular conception that lowsocioeconomic status causes obesity.

"The more prevalent assumption people have isthat poverty may cause overweight[ness]," saidGortmaker. "While that may be happening, at thesame time, it seems that obesity may be asignificant determinant of poverty."

Subjects were labelled overweight if they had abody mass index, based on weight and height,greater than 95 percent of the national populationof the same age and sex.

Overweight women, which made up three percentof the young adults studied, averaged 200 poundsand 5 feet 3 inches tall, while overweight menwere 225 pounds and 5 feet 7 inches tall.

Gortmaker said he didn't have any specificsolutions for eliminating the discrimination hisarticle demonstrated.

"It's going to require a lot more work tofigure out what exactly can be done," he said."The first step is to try to document thatdiscrimination was taking place and that's what wedid."

Gortmaker began his study comparing youngadults with chronic illnesses, such as asthma, tothose who were overweight. He said he wassurprised to find that those suffering fromillness did relatively well, whereas overweightsubjects showed large deficiencies insocioeconomic status.

"We did expect [the overweight subjects] not todo well," said Gortmaker, "but we didn't expectthe magnitude of the differences, nor the factthat the largest effects are seen among women.