What Science Says About Debt and Obesity

This is a guest post written by Matthew Papa, PhD.

The current economic state worldwide has led to an increase in the number of people living in high-income countries who can be considered over-indebted — owing more money than they can repay. While there are many negative factors associated with indebtedness, a new study by Eva Munster and colleagues of Germany, published online in the journal BMC Public Health, found that over-indebtedness is associated with obesity – in fact, people who are over-indebted are more than twice as likely to be obese and almost twice as likely to be overweight as their more financially successful counterparts.

The Study

Traditionally, socioeconomic factors such as education and income, as well as other factors like sex, age, depression, and smoking habits, have been found to have a relationship with weight. This new study was unique in that it specifically examined the relationship between weight and indebtedness, a characteristic rarely used to describe socioeconomic status. Over-indebtedness is defined by the study’s authors as “lack of possible debt redemption in due time due to the relation of income and cost of living after a remarkable cutback in standard of living.”

To conduct the study, Dr. Munster and her colleagues compared the results of two surveys: a study designed to measure the health of 949 over-indebted individuals, and a previous telephone health survey of 8318 individuals representative of the German adult population. Both surveys asked questions about age, sex, income, education, Body Mass Index (BMI – a measure of obesity calculated based on height and weight), smoking, and depression.

The study found a number of interesting relationships with indebtedness. When compared to the general population, the average over-indebted study participant was younger, had less education and income, and a higher incidence of depression, smoking, overweight (BMI ≥ 25), and obesity (BMI ≥ 30). Both men and women were equally likely to be over-indebted.

Aspects other than indebtedness that were found to be related to an increased likelihood of being overweight or obese include being male, being over 40 years old, and suffering from depression. Smokers and those with higher education and income were found to have a decreased likelihood of overweight or obesity.

Over-indebtedness and Obesity

The study found that indebtedness was associated with an increased likelihood of overweight and obesity, even when examined independently of other factors. This means that people who are over-indebted are more likely to be overweight or obese regardless of factors such as income, education, sex, or age – suggesting that over-indebtedness alone can cause obesity.

Why might this be the case? The study’s authors present several possibilities for this relationship between over-indebtedness and obesity. One potential reason is that over-indebted people may be less able to afford healthy food. It is known that, internationally, food that is energy-dense (meaning high in fat, sugar, and calories), is less expensive and more filling than less energy-dense (and healthier) food. For example, for the amount you would spend on a bag of carrots, you can buy a more filling and higher-calorie snack like a Snickers bar.

Another possible reason is the psychological distress faced by those who are over-indebted. Being unable to afford all one’s debts can be stressful and depressing, things that can lead to increased eating for compensation and enjoyment. A number of studies have shown that the majority of people change feeding behaviors when facing stress. Around 40% or more increase and 40% or less decrease their caloric intake during stressful periods, while 20% do not change feeding behavior. Stress also induces secretion of glucocorticoids, which increase motivation for food, and insulin, which promotes food intake and obesity, as mentioned in a recent study by Dr Dellman MF.

Is this a German phenomenon?

Since this study was conducted on a German population, there has been some discussion in the United States’ medical community about whether the results can be generalized to other countries. It is possible that this relationship between over-indebtedness and BMI is a uniquely German phenomenon, but there are also excellent reasons to believe that the study has relevance to other countries such as the United States.

Dr. Emanuela Taioli, a physician at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, said of the study: “This result is even more applicable to the U.S., where unhealthy food is currently much cheaper and more affordable than healthy food, and so is water in comparison to sugary drinks. This will have a large impact on the current U.S. obesity problem, now that the proportion of people with debts is increasing.”

On the other hand, Dr. Lewis Kuller of the University of Pittsburgh noted that the findings would be more impressive had the data been collected over time, rather than all at once, asking “Did the individuals gain weight when they lost [their] income [or] job over indebtedness? Or were they already obese, overweight before their economic problems?”

One thing is certain: this carefully conducted scientific study uncovered a significant association between indebtedness and overweight and obesity. The startling finding – that being over-indebted increases a person’s risk of being overweight by almost 100%, and increases their risk of being obese by more than 150% – definitely suggests that over-indebtedness should be considered when looking at risk factors for overweight and obesity.

About the Author: Matt Papa is a postdoctoral fellow and medical researcher at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO. Concerned about the increasing rate of obesity in the United States and other countries, Matt is interested in sharing the latest relevant scientific information. He is the owner of a WeightLossTriumph, where he provides information on best weight loss programs and offers a Medifast coupon.

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15 thoughts on “What Science Says About Debt and Obesity”

  1. Could it not also be that people who lack the will power to eat less or exercise more also lack the will power to save for purchases or live within their means? That seems to make far more sense than debt causes you to be fat . . . I mean how many calories does each borrowed dollar have?

  2. Hi Traciatim,

    thanks for your question. Indeed, borrowed dollars do not have many calories, as you point out. Then how does debt cause obesity? Reseachers speculated that this is a result of two things. People who are over-indebted
    – often buy cheap, non healthy, calorie loaded food
    – increase their calorie consumption because they are stressed

  3. How about because they/wecomfort themselves with food and drink to cope with the debt pressureand it just makes it worse, and they/we get fatter.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  4. The study doesn’t establish causality at all, and I find the explanation of willpower being the common causal factor more compelling than the idea that people eat badly because they are in debt and depressed about it.

  5. Absolutely Traciatim and Pete – I agree that inability to delay gratification / master appetites / take constructive action once in a poor situation is FAR more likely than the other two ideas presented. I’ve often thought that the two things are linked in this way. I haven’t read the study myself but would be astounded (although not entirely surprised, I suppose) if they didn’t include this possibility in their writeup.

  6. Agree: The study doesn’t establish causality.

    It could well be a two-way street. I know people eating habits do change depending on stress levels and happiness. Food is psychologically addictive, and people seek comfort in it. I’d imagine impulse buying occurs for similar reasons. I know several women who go shopping to cheer them up.

    It’s also true that eating healthily and exercising makes you happier; and therefore probably less likely to impulse buy.

  7. There is also a link to obesity and poverty. Poor people have little self esteem and therefore do not take care of themselves. They need God’s Word on prosperity to learn that God does want only the best for them.

  8. I agree that the link doesn’t imply causation – and that obesity and debt could “cause” each other, creating a vicious cycle. Depression would only fuel this cycle and could be “caused” by either debt or obesity.

    What is clear is that people who don’t control their spending often don’t control their diet/exercise/health, and vice versa. I’m sure the cause of this phenomenon could be a third variable – depression, trauma, sense of helplessness or lack of control, etc.

    Health = wealth = happiness.
    Obesity = debt = depression.


  9. Way too generic of a study to mean anything much more than stating the obvious. What caused the indebtedness and obesity in the first place? It could be any number of things. In my own case, my problems all stemmed from (a) growing up in poverty with parents who didn’t have a clue how to manage money, (b) said parents passing on their lack of knowledge to their offspring, and (c) most damning, the physical and emotional abuse with which said offspring experienced over years’ time. I, personally, didn’t stand a chance in such a household. By the time I was 20, I was skinny but already in debt, fielding collection calls on a daily basis. As the years went on and I discovered that I could ‘eat away’ my emotional distress, the obvious happened: I gained weight. I was not lazy, far from it, but in my quest to stuff down ugly emotions and to make myself feel ‘better’, I spent money and I ate too much. I became an addict plain and simple. I am now learning how to deal with my negative emotions in a healthier fashion and, for the past three years, have gradually evolved from being an out of control spendaholic to a more responsible Manager of Money. I am working on my weight too. No easy answers. Never underestimate the emotional damage caused by abusive parents (who themselves may have been abused too). A vicious cycle which, hopefully, stops with me.

  10. I think being in debt plays a factor in many things such as where you live and what you eat. People that live in communities that are lower in socio-economic status do not have access to things like Farmer’s Markets, Whole Foods, and places that offer convenience food that is healthy. I am living proof. I worked in an area that way high on the socio-economic scale for 3 years. Easy access to a co-op market that stocked fresh organic veggies and fruit made it easier for me to access these items and make healthy food choices. On top of that, I was making the salary of those that lived in that area which allowed me to be able to afford the foods. It all comes down to what you can afford and what you are surrounded by…including people and location. Surround yourself in an area where people are obese..and you will gain 20 pounds…surround yourself with healthy people in healthy geographic areas, and it will be easier to drop the pounds. I lost 45 pounds in 7 months from this.

  11. Interesting study. Stress indeed changes eating behaviors for many people. And this is usually one of the coping mechanisms that most people come up with when faced with financial stress like debt.

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  13. Hey there,

    I think that there is an obvious correrlation between fat people and the way they handle their finances. I’m not trying to be rude but when I was a financial consultant for a few years and I saw it day after day. People that were in debt seemed to be more overweight on average. Perhaps it’s attitude….who know’s. I just know what I was seeing out there.


  14. I think it’s more that when you at the bottom of Maslows Heirachy on needs health isn’t such an important thing. Putting a roof over your head and enjoying yourself are. Food is the cheapest entertainment.

    On a side note, does anyone else get irritated when people say that people are overweight because water is more expensive than soft drink. Water is free it comes out of a tap!!

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