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Economic Expansion: Teen Girls Gain Weight During Downturns

Lean times make for chubbier teenage girls. That's the conclusion of a newly published study that suggests the current recession may exacerbate the nation's obesity problem.
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Fifteen- to 18-year-old females generally gain weight during weak economic periods, according to a report just published in the journal Social Science and Medicine. Researcher Jeremy Arkes of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., found the opposite is true for young men in that age range: They tend to gain weight when the economy is strong.

Arkes drew his conclusions by analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, focusing on the years 1997 to 2004. After controlling for other variables known to affect weight (including a range of family characteristics), he compared the body mass index of teens with the unemployment rate in their home states, as averaged over the previous year. (BMI is a calculated using an individual’s weight and height; most health experts consider it a reliable indicator of body fatness.)

He found that “an increase in the state unemployment rate of one percentage point causes the female teenagers in that state to rise 1.8 percentiles in the BMI distribution, on average.” In contrast, “a one-percentage-point increase in the state unemployment rate is estimated to move teenage males down about 2.0 percentiles in the BMI distribution.”

To put it more simply: “For females, a higher unemployment rate leads to a higher probability of being overweight,” while the opposite is true for males in the late teen years.

Arkes has no definitive explanation for these divergent trends, but he strongly suspects the results have a lot to do with what teens do in their spare time. His analysis of 2001 data from the Youth Risk Behavior Suveillance System reveals that “teenage males clearly exercise more than females, especially in activities with exertion (i.e., making one sweat or breathe hard) and to strengthen or tone muscles.

“Thus, with a weaker economy, we may be more likely to see females gain weight than males because males are more likely to exercise in their free time.”

So, for a teenage boy, time spent on a job is often time spent away from the athletic field or swimming pool. His wallet may be getting fatter, but so is he.

Arkes also notes that, according to a study he conducted in 2007, “a weaker economy leads to greater marijuana use,” especially among teenage girls. “The greater marijuana use could cause an increase in food intake and more weight gain, which could contribute to the female weight gain during weaker economic periods,” he speculates.

Never underestimate the cumulative effect of the munchies.

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