Why are economists so skinny?

The Wall Street Journal has a chart of the rates of obesity by classes of professions. Kevin Drum looked at the chart and noted that the category that includes economists, scientists, and psychologists have the lowest rates of 14.2%, well below the national average of 27.7% and far, far below the highest category of police officers, firefighters, and security guards which is 40.7% He is puzzled why this should be so and asks why it might be that economists are so low in weight.

I cannot answer that but suspect that income level and the nature of one’s work surely must play a role in what and how much one eats. If one finds one’s work really interesting, one does not think much about food, while in a boring job, one looks for distractions and food is the most convenient one. I keep snacks in my office drawer and it is at times when I am feeling bored or uninterested in the task at hand that I find myself reaching for them.

Furthermore, the brain by itself can use up on average up to 20% of the total energy expenditure of the body and that is just when the body is resting.

If we assume an average resting metabolic rate of 1,300 calories, then the brain consumes 260 of those calories just to keep things in order.

So a typical adult human brain runs on around 12 watts—a fifth of the power required by a standard 60 watt lightbulb.

Using the brain requires a lot of energy and so maybe a job that requires a lot of continuous cognitive effort burns more calories than one that requires short spurts of physical activity.

The role of income might also come into play in that if one is in a position to get stimulation from many sources such as the arts and leisure activities, the need for stimulation from food, especially food that is more tasty than nutritious, becomes less important. This point was made a long time ago by George Orwell in his book The Road to Wigan Pier in which he reported on his observations living among impoverished coal miners.

And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want, especially something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have threepennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread. [My emphasis-MS]

So I don’t think Drum’s question has a simple answer.


  1. Trickster Goddess says

    A red flag went up in my mind when reading that 40% of firefighters are obese. That doesn’t sound right — aren’t firefighters held to fitness standards due to the often taxing physical nature of their jobs? So I checked the source and sure enough the measure they used to declare ‘obesity’ is the Body-Mass Index which makes no differentiation between fat mass and muscle mass.

    Add in the fact that the BMI results in nonsensical units — kilograms per square meter (a ratio of 3 dimensional measure to a 2 dimensional measure) I take any health pronouncements or studies that rely mainly on BMI with a grain of salt.

  2. Katydid says

    I agree with Trickster Goddess; BMI is not a great way to evaluate an individual’s fitness. My BIL, who’s one of those natural athletes who loves hiking, rock-climbing, and running. He also lives in a fixer-upper house, which he fixes up himself (including construction). Need help moving to a new house? He’ll haul your wardrobe up three flights of stairs by himself. He had a doctor who just would not get off his case because of his BMI…the guy’s nearly 6 feet tall and got a 32-inch waist and a 50-inch chest, and he’s all muscle.

  3. Lacy Williams says

    I am also in agreement with Katydid and Trickster goddess. Police work and firefighting are jobs that favor burly, muscular people. The BMI of people with such builds will likely skew into the “obese” range, even if they don’t have a medical problem based on their body size. Another reason obesity rates are higher among people with lower paying professions is that high calorie but otherwise nutrient poor food is all they can afford or have time to prepare. And it’s a vicious circle because once you’re fat, you are prone to discrimination in hiring.

  4. david says

    BMI isn’t a perfect measure, but for most people it’s pretty good (as noted, has problems for top athletes). BMI correlates strongly with mortality. See Lancet. Mar 28, 2009; 373(9669): 1083–1096. You can find that article easily on pubmed.

    There’s bigger BS in the article, though. The graph shows the average BMI for “economists, scientists and psychologists” is 14.2. To have a BMI of 14.2, a person standing 5’9″ would weight 93 pounds.

    It’s time for a reality check. I’m a scientist. I’m one of the skinnier people at work, and my BMI is 23. I recently attended a national meeting attended by thousands of scientists and psychologists (fortunately, I don’t have to deal with economists). I don’t think I saw a single person of average height weighing under a hundred pounds.

    So if all the scientists and psychologists have BMIs in the normal or “plus size” range, that implies that the economists must be really thin, in order for the average BMI to be only 14.2. So thin we can’t see them.

  5. lorn says

    Trickster Goddess, Marcus Ranum, and all the others are right.

    BMI is only a quick and dirty test. I’ve seen marines running with full pack seemingly all day who were technically obese. I’ve also seen people with good BMI numbers who had so little muscle mass and so much fat that they had difficulty climbing stairs. Those are extremes and BMI seems to work well enough for most people of average composition but it is simply a number derived from a short list of statistics. Health is complex. It is hard to express that complexity with any small set of numbers.

  6. anat says

    David, the article doesn’t say the BMI of scientists is 14.2, it says 14.2% of scientists are obese. ie have BMIs at or over 30.

  7. says

    “Economists, scientists and psychologists?” Why is that even a valid category? Why, for example, are psychologists lumped together with scientists, but not social-workers? This gives arbitrary-lumping-together a bad name.

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