Home The "Study" Guide Study: Poor People Keep the Diet Pill Industry Afloat

Study: Poor People Keep the Diet Pill Industry Afloat

by Erika Nicole Kendall


So, we’ve decided that obesity in America is at “epidemic” levels, right? Then this information right here, is incredibly important:

Poor people—and poor women in particular—are more likely to be overweight and obese. But what makes the obesity epidemic such a tough problem to solve is that the poorest Americans are also less likely to use proven weight-loss strategies, relying instead on quick fixes like diet pills.

For a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers from Concordia University looked at the incomes and health habits of more than 3,000 children and teens between the ages of 8 and 19 and more than 5,000 adults over the age of 20.

At least two-thirds of the study subjects reported attempting to reduce food intake or exercising in order to lose weight in the past year. Despite these efforts, the adults in the study gained an average of three pounds, while the youths gained about 12 pounds. The people in the lower income brackets gained about two pounds more than those in the highest one.

One reason for the disparity might have to do with the tactics they used to try to shed pounds: Compared to adults making $75,000 or more, those making less than $20,000 were 50 percent less likely to exercise, 42 percent less likely to drink a lot of water, and 25 percent less likely to eat less fat and sweets. And adults making between $20,000 and $75,000 were about 50 percent more likely to use over-the-counter diet pills, which aren’t proven to work.

The data for the young people were similar: The poorest among them were 33 percent less likely to exercise, but they were twice as likely to skip meals as the richest ones. [source]

“Poor women are more likely to be overweight and obese.” But why is that?

The next sentence tells you a bit, but doesn’t tell you enough:

the poorest Americans are also less likely to use proven weight-loss strategies, relying instead on quick fixes like diet pills”

And why is that? Why is it that the poorest Americans would spent their hard-earned – and, apparently, scarce – dollars on something like diet pills, that promise results without actual work or effort on the part of the person taking them?

Think about the conditions of the poor in the United States right now. The number of people unemployed right now is approximately two-thirds less than the number of people living in poverty, right now. Be that because they have good jobs but also have children that put a tight hold on the budget, or because they have low paying jobs that don’t properly cover all of their expenses, or any other number of combinations of challenges in-between the two, there are 45 million people living in straight up poverty as of 2012.

Poverty is when the only way you can get to work is via public transportation, and your daily commute is several hours each day. Or, you have a car to get to and from work, but your car is constantly needing work, and you can’t afford what it takes to get a new car. Or maybe your car is just fine, but having to pay for gas + insurance + upkeep regularly leaves you with very few pennies left over.

Or, when your boss requires you to be “on call” for just about as long as you’re actually “scheduled” each week, making it increasingly difficult for you to get a second job, and you sometimes even wonder why bother trying to replace the job you’ve got, since getting a new job is risky when you don’t know the people or the work environment the way you do the one you’ve got.

Or maybe you’re working three jobs back to back so that you can bring home money for your family, only to accidentally die while falling asleep in your car, because the gas can you kept in your trunk overturned while you were sleeping.

Suppose you have children who you have to pick up from day care and drop off. Suppose you’re a day care employee. Suppose your children and their needs eat up all your extra cash. Suppose you have family that you have to care for, and that eats up so much of your money that you live way below your means in order to care for your loved ones.

Suppose, suppose, suppose.

All stressful situations – stress, which contributes to obesity, mind you – stress that is only compounded by being told by your doctor that “it is time to lose weight, dear,” with no actual guidance into how to get that done.

Suppose you go to all of the reliable spots – the fitness magazines, the health-centered TV shows, and the local “health shops,” and they’re all pushing the same thing: diet pills. Some new tool for weight loss, some magic pill, some quick fix. And, because you believe that your government actually tests all of these products for safety and validity before they hit the market, you willingly give your money over for this product that clearly works because it says so in the ad, and we prosecute companies that falsely advertise, right? (Of course we do, but we only catch them after they’ve already falsely misled the public, not before.)

“At least two-thirds of the study subjects reported attempting to reduce food intake or exercising in order to lose weight in the past year. Despite these efforts, the adults in the study gained an average of three pounds, while the youths gained about 12 pounds. The people in the lower income brackets gained about two pounds more than those in the highest one.”

If you’re working out, chances are higher that you’re doing some activity that also spares your muscle – a key component of preserving your metabolism during weight loss – as opposed to simply cutting your calories dangerously low, taking an overpriced-glorified caffeine pill to artificially raise your heart rate to make you burn more calories, and ruin your metabolism even further because your starvation diet – further made worse by the diet pill – has now also depleted your muscle stores.

Children gaining weight doesn’t bother me – more often than not, barring certain circumstances like excessive juice and sodapop consumption, kids are supposed to gain weight and, for that matter, adults gaining weight doesn’t bother me either since “gaining weight” needs a bit more context for it to be OMG-worthy.

What does bother me is the fact that whatever method the wealthier study participants are using to prevent them from gaining weight like the poorer participants – working out – is largely unavailable to the poorer participants, and it’s affecting the outcome of public health.

Our first reaction is to usually say, “Well, stop making excuses for them.” And, I get that. But, we all have our own individual lives that feel so overwhelming that ‘easy ways out’ seem ideal, and we’re better served by approaching that with a pound of empathy than an ounce of shade. Lots of people never think of at-home workouts being successful, because they think that “30lbs in 3 weeks” is the only acceptable rate of weight loss, so the ideal 1-2lbs a week you might otherwise lose via healthy calorie cutting and at-home training is considered “too slow.” Or they don’t have the means or the time to spend learning how to change their eating habits. Or they don’t have enough money to assume the perceived risk involved with spending money to learn about new foods and how to enjoy them. Or maybe buying fresh produce and other perishables feels like a wasteful idea.

One of the challenges of poverty, is that you’re spending so much time working, you don’t have time to learn or research or investigate. Everything needs to be immediate, because you can’t afford to waste time doing things that don’t provide results. If we refuse to lift people up out of poverty through economic policy – which, okay, fine – do we intend to affect the way the poverty cycle breeds this thing we’ve identified as an epidemic?

If obesity is a public health issue, do these things not also become public health issues? If not by way of labor laws that allow for personal health and self-care time (which, let’s be honest here, isn’t happening), then by way of laws preventing predatory medicinals, supplements, fat burners, barring certain kinds of false advertisement, and so on? Do we eventually start investing in reducing the price of fresh produce? Grants for organizations that teach culturally significant healthy cooking techniques?

If the means for healthy living are largely denied a growing portion of our population, what do we do to help change that?

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Ariel Lynn February 18, 2015 - 12:11 AM

That’s terrifying. That woman who died as a result of having to hold 4 jobs at once? She died only a few blocks from where I used to live.

It’s a sobering piece to read, but it needs to be said. Thank you for saying it.

Jean Baptiste Lammoglia February 20, 2015 - 7:33 AM

Love the article so many people are being exploited. What do you think ordinary people like us could do to stop it?

Erika Nicole Kendall February 24, 2015 - 11:14 AM

This is such an important question.

I think, truthfully, the best thing we can do is serve as compassionate resources to our peers and provide them with what we know and what resources we have (ahem, like certain websites!) to help them reach their goals healthily, in a way that works for them.

Everyone can’t become an endurance runner overnight. Everyone can’t become a power lifter. Everyone won’t enjoy Zumba, or the myriad other ways that we can help one another. But if we at least try to get that message across to folks, we can make a huge difference, IMHO. 🙂

This is such a good question, I might make it a new blog post. 🙂

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