COLUMBUS , Ohio – Overweight Americans who lose a lot of weight also tend to build more wealth as they drop the pounds, according to new research.
The study found that the link between weight loss and wealth gains was particularly strong among white women. Black women and white men also gained
wealth as they lost weight, but not as much as did white women. The wealth of Black men was basically unaffected by their weight.
There's no way to tell from the data whether losing weight was the reason for the gain in wealth, but the linkage was definitely there, said Jay Zagorsky, author of the study and a research scientist at Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research.
"The typical person who loses or gains a few pounds had almost no change in wealth, but those who lost or gained large amounts of weight had a more dramatic change," Zagorsky said.
For example, white women who dropped their body mass index score (BMI) – a standard measure of obesity – by 10 points saw a wealth increase of $11,880. White men saw an increase of $12,720 for a similar drop, while black women increased wealth by $4,480.
The study appears online in the "Articles in Press" section of the journal Economics and Human Biology.
The study used data involving about 7,300 people who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which is funded primarily by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The NLSY is a nationally representative survey of people nationwide conducted by Ohio State 's Center for Human Resource Research.
The same people are interviewed repeatedly, giving Zagorsky the opportunity to see how the obesity levels and wealth of respondents changed over time. Zagorsky used data from 12 NLSY surveys conducted between 1985 and 2000 All the respondents were between 21 and 28 years old in 1985.
Using each respondent's height and weight figures, Zagorsky was able to calculate their BMI scores. Scores under 18.5 are considered underweight, 18.5 to 24.9 are normal, 25 to 29.9 are overweight, and 30 or higher are considered obese.
The respondents also gave information about their net worth, which included home values, cash savings, stocks, bonds, and auto values, among other assets. Outstanding debts were subtracted from that total to arrive at net worth.
Overall, the results showed that a one unit increase in a young person's BMI was associated with a $1,300 or 8 percent reduction in wealth. But the changes varied dramatically by ethnicity and gender.
Increases in BMI had no link with the wealth of Black men, and were associated with small negative changes in the wealth of white men. Increases in BMI were linked to medium negative changes in wealth for Black women and large negative changes for white women.
The results suggest each category of race and gender has a different ideal BMI to maximize wealth, Zagorsky said.
White women had peak net worth at the low end of the normal range (BMI 20), white males and Black women reached peak net worth at the upper end of the normal range (BMI 24) and Black males peaked in the obese range (BMI 32).
Zagorsky emphasized that participants in this study had to lose quite a bit of weight to show strong improvements in wealth.
For example, when a typical young person decreased his or her BMI by one point, wealth increased by only $234. But when a person lost enough weight to go from the middle of the overweight category (BMI 27.5) to the middle of the normal category (BMI 21.7), wealth increased by an average of $4,085.
"If you really want to impact your wealth, you have to move from overweight or obese into the normal range," he said. "You can't just drop 5 or 10 pounds and change your wealth."
The data in this study can't tell us whether a person's wealth affects obesity, or whether obesity affects wealth. However, Zagorsky said it is more likely that weight influences wealth. An analysis of people in the study who received inheritances – suddenly increasing their wealth – showed no dramatic changes in their BMI scores in the following years. This suggests that wealth does not have a strong influence on weight.
However, if weight does affect wealth, there is also the question of how it does so. One possible explanation would be that overweight and obese people are discriminated against in the workforce, and don't earn as much money as normal weight people. Women, particularly white women, may be held to particularly high standards for beauty, which could explain why they gained more wealth compared to men as they lost more weight. But there is no way to tell for sure from this data, Zagorsky said.
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