Financially Connected Obesity Villains

In explaining the impact of policy-driven income on childhood obesity, Young Jo of the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service wrote,

I exploit substantial increases in the earned income tax credit to study how a policy‐driven change in family income affects childhood obesity. Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, my difference‐in‐differences estimates indicate that the probability of being obese increased by 3 percentage points among children whose families experienced a greater income shock… The paper’s finding shows that a program that is not designed for health purposes, such as earned income tax credit, can have unintended effects on health outcomes.

Alaska PFDs

Another suspected obesity villain is Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, an innovative universal basic-income program that affects employment, crime, health, and even childhood obesity. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with a system that splits the state’s oil income among its residents. To frame the case more accurately, the factor being questioned is the method of administration, specifically the timing of the distribution.

There is much study of, and speculation about, the societal effects of sharing the wealth. University of Alaska Anchorage researchers learned that “when people have more money, they tend to drink more and steal less” — hardly a breathtaking revelation. However, this paragraph describes the further results of research conducted among three-year-old children:

A child that’s born in December will get his or her first PFD by the time they’re 10 months old. If a child is born in January, that child will not get his first PFD until they’re 22 or 23 months old.

We find really big effects. We find that an additional $1,000 for a child that’s born in Alaska results in them being 4.5 percent less likely to be obese… If we extrapolate that to Alaska, that means potentially 500 cases of obesity prevented as a result of this distribution.

Downey’s list

Morgan Downey was executive director of the American Obesity Association for many years, followed by two years as president of the Obesity Society, and has engaged in many activist campaigns. Over time, he compiled a list of 104 named causes of obesity, ranging from proven to suspected. While not promoting or endorsing any of the putative causes, his page includes a link to at least one source for each alleged obesity villain.

The world is such that everything is influenced by money in one way or another. This condensed list features some of the most blatantly money-connected institutions and phenomena blamed for childhood obesity. There are things so huge, so carved in institutional stone, that we tend to feel helpless against them. However, bear in mind that Downey himself was instrumental in convincing the IRS that when individuals fill out their income tax paperwork, weight loss treatment expenses should be deductible.

Some of the overwhelming factors that are said to cause obesity stem from international trade policies that form the global food system; the market economy; and agricultural policies in each country. Economic development results in “nutrition transition,” which refers to major changes in diet and physical activity patterns in various places. Too often, when famine recedes and prosperity takes hold, starvation is replaced by an equally disastrous nutritional threat: an overabundance of crappy food.

Then, there is the built environment, which is a massive thing to try changing. Vending machines are blamed, and competitive food sales in schools, and the long hours that parents must be gone from home to earn money. Politician Charles Grassley once proposed that child labor laws are the problem. Kids can only do farm work legally if their family owns the farm, and that’s why everybody is fat.

Human nature and free will

Some of the money-related factors on Downey’s list originate with plain old greedy, acquisitive, lazy human nature: compulsive buying, food marketing to children, transportation by car. Many are endemic to poverty: food deserts; living in crime-prone areas; low educational levels for women; low socioeconomic status; maternal employment; no or short-term breastfeeding; and participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps).

Some causes spring from individual circumstances and choices, but money is still the basis of them: being a single mother; delayed prenatal care; divorce; non-parental childcare; TV set in bedroom; starting college.

The simple explanation for obesity — energy balance, or “calories in, calories out,” — has been challenged in at least 104 ways. Obesity science appears in desperate need of a brand new Unified Field Theory.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Does the earned income tax credit increase children’s weight? The impact of policy‐driven income on childhood obesity,”, 04/17/18
Source: “New research shows some kinds of crime rise after Alaska PFDs are distributed while others decrease,”, 02/17/19
Source: “Ask an Economist: What does the PFD do for jobs, crime and health in Alaska?,”, 02/12/19
Source: “The Putative 104 Causes of Obesity Update,”, 10/22/15
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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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