Most obese people are not poor

24th Jan 2013

What truth is there in the claim that most overweight people are also poor? Chris Goulden investigates.

Obviously, not everybody who is overweight comes from deprived backgrounds but that’s where the propensity lies” said Anna Soubry (Minister for Public Health) this week, as reported in the Telegraph. This claim immediately led to a FactCheck by Channel 4 and a dissection of the data by the Guardian.

There is some disagreement in the figures. The Guardian data, via Department of Health, shows a clear social gradient for both sexes, with 30% of women in the most deprived fifth of areas being obese, compared with 19% of those from the least deprived places. The gap for men is smaller at 25 and 22%.

But where you live doesn’t determine your household income. When you look at the relationship for children between direct incomes and obesity, signs of any social gradient are much less clear. There is also a difference for adults with a clear social gradient for women (with 31% of the poorest being obese compared with 19% of the richest) but pretty much equal rates for men across all incomes (between 24-29%).

Over time, there is little sign of the inexorable rise in obesity that underlies some of the concern about the issue. Rates for children did rise and peak in 2004 but have since fallen and are now no different to what they were in the late 1990s. We also seem to lack decent studies that have looked at why income (or living in a deprived area) might lead to higher risks of obesity.

A lot of this debate mixes up relative ‘risks’ of obesity with its prevalence. For example, if 31% of women in the poorest fifth are obese and (on average) 25% of the rest of women are, then if you see a ‘fat’ woman on the street, she is more than three times as likely to be on a middle or higher income, all else being equal. There’s a risk that prejudice and assumptions come to fill the gaps in our knowledge rather than evidence about the choices people make and the constraints they face. I’ll leave the last word to Channel 4’s FactCheck who put it eloquently thus:

It’s difficult to find fault with what the public health minister actually said. There is good evidence that poor people tend to be fatter overall, although there are some big buts.”