Reduce Debt to Lose Weight?

A new study suggests that owing money (regardless of your income level) makes you fat.

We all know that income and education are strongly associated with obesity, but an interesting new study shows that debt—independently of these other factors—increases the probability of being overweight or obese.

The study, “Over-indebtedness as a marker of socioeconomic status and its association with obesity,” published yesterday in the journal BMC Public Health, examined 9,000 people in Germany and found that of those who were in debt, 25 percent were medically obese, compared to only 11 percent of the non-indebted group.

The researchers say that the difference can be explained in part by the high price of healthy food. As Eva Münster, the study’s lead author, explains, “Energy-dense foods such as sweets or fatty snacks are often less expensive compared to food with lower energy density such as fruit or vegetables”—a fact that is very much in the public consciousness lately, thanks to the likes of Michael Pollan and David Kessler.

Some people with massive debt still eat remarkably well, of course. Just look at contributor W. Hodding Carter, who traded specialty-food purveyors for discount grocery stores after realizing he and his wife had a whopping $75,000 in credit-card debt and owed $245,000 on a $289,000 house. Carter’s brand of extreme frugality involves eating freshly laid eggs and homemade mozzarella, but it’s obviously a huge amount of work and isn’t for everyone, so it’s understandable that significant debt would cause people to eat poorly.

The researchers offer a few additional potential reasons for the association, including a tendency for people who are anxious about debt to turn to food for comfort. “Over-indebted individuals’ psychological distress has to be considered,” the researchers write. “A depressed emotional state can lead to increased food intake. In the situation of over-indebtedness, eating can become a compensation and gratification. The subsequent positive feeling might be a substitute for other deficits.”

The researchers also acknowledge that debt can limit “leisure activities,” so perhaps some of the weight gain can also be explained by lack of exercise.

Have you ever found yourself having to give up healthy foods for financial reasons? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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