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A new take on obesity's cause: Technology investment

August 22, 2012|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times | For the Booster Shots Blog
  • As a country invests more heavily in information technology -- for work and play -- its citizens become fatter, a new study finds. Above, Chinese video game enthusiasts try new titles at a trade show in Shanghai last month.
As a country invests more heavily in information technology -- for work… (Wu Hong / EPA )

As a country shifts more heavily to a knowledge-based economy its citizens become fatter, says new research the explores the chubby underbelly of worldwide development.

The study, produced by the Milken Institute and released Wednesday, studied the rise of communications technology investment in 27 countries between 1988 and 2009, and found that with each 10% jump in such investments as a share of gross capital formation, a country's obesity rate rose 1.4%.

As correlations go, I've seen studies draw zanier links than this.

In fact, the Milken Institute report asserts the connection between a country's growing investment in technology and its spreading collective waistline is not just coincidence: It's a causal link. The direct effect of citizens spending more of their workdays at desks and more of their evenings sitting in front of a screen accounts for more than two-thirds of the observed growth in obesity, the study finds. The indirect effect of higher caloric consumption during engagement in screen-time activities, the authors maintain, accounts for the remaining third.

Included in the factors that seem to grow along with an economy's high-tech investments are many things that contribute to a population's fatness including technological innovations, the availability and market for more processed foods, the consumption of more snack food, less exercise, and more time spent sitting in front of a screen, said co-author Annusuya Chatterjee, an economist at the Milken Institute.

When a country's economy embraces new communications technologies that allow for computer-aided design, manufacturing, marketing and sales, the result is improved national labor output and productivity. But that "growth enhancing investment," say the authors of the new report, may be offset at least in part by the growing disease burden that comes with obesity such as the  rising prevalence of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. 

In the United States, where investment in communication technologies is the highest in the world, the result has become a rate of obesity that, at 34%, also leads the world.

But in fast-growing economies such as China and India, the obesity-inducing consequences of such investments are even scarier because their populations are so large. Since India and China each has a  population of over 1 billion people, a one-percentage-point gain in the prevalence of obesity amounts to 10 million people. China's obesity rate, which stood at 2.5% in 2002, hovered at 5.7% by 2008. India's went from 0.7% in 1998 to 1.9% in 2008.

The report focuses heavily on the decline of physical activity in countries whose dependence on new technologies is growing. Therein, however, lies a finding that can help some of the world's most advanced industrial nations reverse some of technology's effects of national girth: For countries whose investments in communications technologies top 30% of gross capital formation, a 1% increase in physically active citizens can head off a .2% rise in obesity rates.

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