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Lean Times Are Making Americans Even Fatter

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New study links our credit addiction to obesity epidemic.

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Uh-oh. The next do-gooder program intended to make people less thick between the pockets will take a huge bite out of consumer spending.

A study published in BMC Public Health with the snooze-inducing title Over-Indebtedness As a Marker of Socioeconomic Status and Its Association with Obesity: A Cross-Sectional Study concluded that those who are in hock up to their eyeballs are fatter than those who don't spend more than they earn.

Researchers examined about 9,000 souls in Germany and discovered that 25% of those with significant debt were obese compared with only 11% of those who managed their money well.

Do the math, English majors -- that's 127% more fatties!

And here's why: "A depressed emotional state can lead to increased food intake," the researchers said. "In the situation of over-indebtedness, eating can become a compensation and gratification. The subsequent positive feeling might be a substitute for other deficits."

That's a highfalutin way of saying those who fret about debt may overeat to ease their nerves, assuage their guilt, and generally stuff their faces.

Maybe that's why dishes like these -- by our estimate, the 10 worst-for-you meals in America -- are so confoundingly popular. (They're particularly good if you down them while opening your credit-card statement.)

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The researchers say heavy debt can limit "leisure activities," and the subsequent weight gain may be explained by lack of exercise. But it's unclear why walking is crimped by debt -- even if it's only a waddle from the car to the mall for a bacon double-cheeseburger and an afternoon of shopping at Nordstrom (JWN).

Worse, the authors note "a remarkable increase in the number of over-indebted people in European countries and the US can currently be observed." More data is needed, but clearly something must be done -- now. It's a good bet Congress will get it wrong with all the right intentions.

Force-feeding credit-card lovers with fruit and vegetables sounds like a good way to get the weight off, and brainwashing them with the basics of personal finance would go a long way toward balancing family budgets. However, the unintended consequence of making millions of Americans skinny and, worse, financially responsible would devastate the economy.

Financially responsible skinny people would be a catastrophe for the US economy, because consumer-spending represents about two-thirds of the Gross Domestic Product. The problem we now face is getting people off their butts and spending again. We need to get the wheels of commerce turning, cranking out profits and heady returns for investors and expanding the number of fat, morose people with massive credit-card debt for the benefit of rapacious bankers who routinely jack up interest rates and late fees.

But that won't stop the crusaders in Congress from spending more of our tax dollars to get us to spend less of our own money so we won't be stressed into gobbling boxes of bon-bons.

Think of the coming Shopper Responsibility Act as "No Cash for Clunk Heads" -- the flip side of the wildly successful Cash-for-Clunkers program that takes money out of one pocket and stuffs it in another with up to $4,500 in credit to trade in the family bomb on a small, fuel-efficient car only an anorexic environmentalist could love.

"After adjusting for socio-economic (age, sex, education, income) and health factors (depression, smoking habits) an independent effect of the over-indebtedness situation on the probability of overweight could be identified," the researchers conclude in anything-but-lean language.

Yikes -- that means the dreaded debt-to-corpulence ratio isn't confined to The Great Unwashed and infects yuppies who have been to the right schools and think all the right thoughts. In short, the old ways won't do because this isn't a choice between Coach (COH) and Wal-Mart (WMT) or a Ford (F) and a Lexus (TM).

The issue: Be healthy and destroy the economy -- or goose commerce with consumer spending, which could then overwhelm the nation's health-care system. Thomas Hobson -- of "Hobson's choice" fame -- call your office.

This is duck soup for denizens of Capitol Hill, who grow fat caring for the rest of us. But who could have imagined that enticing, nutritious, upscale offerings at Whole Foods Market (WFMI) could be simultaneously part of the problem and the solution?
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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