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What Rising Gas Prices Mean for the Obesity Epidemic

There's a striking correlation between driving and obesity. Could a future with fewer cars help reverse one of our most pressing health crises?

We're eating bigger portions of highly processed foods, all the time, on every street corner. But what about the other factors that correspond with increasing rates of obesity, like driving, on average, 37 miles every day?

Last week, The Economist revisited a recent study from the journal Transport Policy (PDF), and put together this chart. The study's authors suggest that if every licensed driver in the United States drove 36 miles per day, one less mile than the current average, we'd have five million fewer obese adults by 2017.

While the two lines above represent a correlation and don't conclusively say driving causes obesity, the research highlights one of the many environmental factors that contribute to the obesity problem. Clearly, health is not simply a matter of diet and exercise. (But it's not just a matter of driving, either. Even wild animals and household pets appear to be putting on the pounds.)

If there really will be 10 million fewer cars by 2012, as Jeff Rubin predicted (PDF), could we reverse one of the most pressing health crises in America? Dr. Charles Courtemanche, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, ran the numbers. He writes in the journal Economic Inquiry that increasing gas prices by one dollar could cut obesity rates 10 percent over seven years and save an estimated $11 billion. He concludes:

[T]here may be a “silver lining” to the large spike in gasoline prices that has occurred in recent years in the United States: we may experience a modest reduction in obesity, or at least a slowdown in its growth.


Perhaps this is one crash diet worth trying.

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