Creative Destruction, Economic Insecurity, Stress, and Epidemic Obesity


  • Jon D. Wisman,

    1. American University, Washington, D.C.
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  • Kevin W. Capehart

    1. American University, Washington, D.C.
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    •  *

      The authors are Professor of Economics and Ph.D. Candidate in Economics, respectively, at American University, Washington, D.C. Helpful comments from Mary E. Hansen, Martha Starr, and two anonymous reviewers are gratefully acknowledged.


The percentage of Americans who are obese has doubled since 1980. Most attempts to explain this “obesity epidemic” have been found inadequate, including the “Big Two” (the increased availability of inexpensive food and the decline of physical exertion). This article explores the possibility that the obesity epidemic is substantially due to growing insecurity, stress, and a sense of powerlessness in modern society where high-sugar and high-fat foods are increasingly omnipresent. Those suffering these conditions may suffer less control over other domains of their lives. Insecurity and stress have been found to increase the desire for high-fat and high-sugar foods. After exploring the evidence of a link between stress and obesity, the increasing pace of capitalism's creative destruction and its generation of greater insecurity and stress are addressed. The article ends with reflections on how epidemic obesity is symptomatic of a social mistake—the seeking of maximum efficiency and economic growth even in societies where the fundamental problem of material security has been solved.

I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of humankind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress. (Mill 1848: 748)

Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature—with all our impulses and deepest instincts—for the purpose of solving the economic problem [“the struggle for subsistence”]. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose . . . Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades. (Keynes 1932: 366)