Are conservatives fatter than liberals?

By Razib Khan | December 30, 2010 1:10 am

    The maps above juxtaposes the counties which shifted Republican in the 2008 presidential election vs. 2004 (reddish) and the age-adjusted estimated rates of obesity by county in 2007 (darker blue). One issue which I haven’t seen explored too much are the two faces of Appalachia; the Atlantic facing counties are generally healthier than the lowland countries to their east, even controlling for race. In contrast, the west facing counties have some of the lowest human development indices in the United States. West Virginia is the fattest state. And it seems purely from inspection that the east facing counties of Appalachia which shifted toward the Republicans in 2008 are also amongst the fattest in the nation.

    Rush Limbaugh, fat again

    Is this simply a coincidence? A reader queried me about the relationship between politics and weight, wondering about correlations. I don’t follow politics too closely, but apparently there has been some conflict recently between conservatives who oppose the top-down campaign against obesity spearheaded by our cultural and political elites. My perception, which may be wrong, is that some are portraying this as another liberal culture war. To some extent this is dumb, as it seems that the biggest salient predictor of weight is class. The majority of American adults are overweight according to BMI thresholds, and a significant minority are obese. And yet none of the presidential and vice presidential candidates in 2008, or their spouses, were overweight. Take a look at the candidates during the Democratic and Republican debates in 2008, and you can see that they don’t “look like America.” Despite the efforts of NAAFA this is one way that Americans are not too keen on the candidates reflecting themselves. Rather, it seems that Americans were more accepting of fat heads of state when they were a slimmer folk.

    Looking in the GSS there’s one variable which might shed light on the question of politics and weight, INTRWGHT. This is basically an interviewer assessment of the weight of the respondent. It was collected in 2004. I limited the sample to non-Hispanic whites to eliminate population stratification.

    Below Average7.266.4
    Somewhat Above Average18.317.118.7
    Considerably Above Average2.73.73
    Below Average27.932.539.5
    Somewhat Above Average24.732.542.7
    Considerably Above Average21.341.137.6

    The first set of numbers sums to 100% for the rows, and the second set sums the columns. I don’t see a notable different obetween liberals and conservatives. The only exception might be that liberals are more well represented among those who are below average in weight than those who are considerably above average, but the samples are small enough than I don’t trust that to be anything more than measurement error.

    There is another variable in regards to weight which I think is interesting: GENENVO1. The respondents were given this scenario: “Carol is a substantially overweight White woman. She has lost weight in the past but always gains it back again.” Then they were asked to rate the proportion of the outcome which could be attributed to genes. The means were as follows:

    Liberals, 54% environmental
    Moderates: 56% environmental
    Conservatives: 61% environmental

    I was a little dubious about this result, since it goes against stereotype. So I checked the other similar questions.

    “George is a Black man who’s a good all-around athlete. He was on the high school varsity swim team and still works out five times a week.”

    Liberals, 54% environmental
    Moderates: 54% environmental
    Conservatives: 59% environmental

    “Felicia is a very kind Hispanic woman. She never has anything bad to say about anybody, and can be counted on to help others.”

    Liberals, 54% environmental
    Moderates: 58% environmental
    Conservatives: 60% environmental

    “David is an Asian man who drinks enough alcohol to become drunk several times a week. Often he can’t remember what happened during these drinking episodes.”

    Liberals, 55% environmental
    Moderates: 56% environmental
    Conservatives: 58% environmental

    The differences are small, but consistent. It could be incorrect coding, and I don’t know how it relates to the current perceived polarization on the issue of weight. My own suspicion is that this is more a creation of the media than anything else, but I am going to look at correlations on the county level data next. But at this point I doubt there’s a culture war around fat. Being fat may not be immoral, but most people would rather be slim. Though how we get there is a matter of some contention naturally.

    CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Data Analysis
    MORE ABOUT: Culture, Data

    Comments (11)

    1. vel

      To me it works like this: conservatives don’t like to change. The diet of the US is still based on physical labor for about 4 hours a day. If you don’t burn calories you get fat. Thus, conservatives are more likely to be fat.

    2. Aaron

      Might age also be a factor? Don’t liberals tend to be younger, while conservatives tend to be older? Weight follows the same trend, right? Perhaps that could lead to this perception.

      Also, it looks like the -second- set of numbers sums to 100% for the rows, while the first set sums the columns.

    3. badnicolez

      I disagree with your last point. Being fat is immoral from an environmental standpoint, as people who eat more, by definition, also consume more resources than a person who is thin. They also create more greenhouse gases due to the increased consumption.

      There is definitely a culture war developing around fat, but I don’t believe it’s necessarily being drawn along liberal/conservative lines, but along fat/thin lines. There are groups that are currently attempting to make being obese socially acceptable, when it is quite obvious that the opposite should be happening, especially considering the health implications along with the greater burden of health care costs being shared by those of us who pay taxes.

      And please don’t anyone try to tell me that people who are fat consume as many or fewer calories (and resources) than people who are thin, because they don’t.

      It astounds me when fat people claim they eat like everyone else, and exercise like everyone else, but they just seem to stay fat through no fault of their own (must be their genes or maybe now they can blame “obesogens.” Yet I see them in restaurants with gallon-size sodas, large fries and double burgers (while I’m eating a happy meal with milk), and grocery stores with the cart loaded with soda and processed food (while mine has fruits, vegetables, whole grains and actual ingredients), and at the buffet, filling plate after plate (while I have one plate of salad and veggies and some soup). But then they tell me “You’re so lucky you’re skinny!” Seriously?!

    4. dan

      @#3 – don’t be too sure. Razib linked to a paper that showed that obese people offset their damage by dying earlier than skinny people. maybe we should encourage them to be fat!

    5. Travis

      @badnicolez – will you marry me?

    6. The link is regional and not directly causal. The Southern diet is fattening and is also the cultural core of the Republican party.

    7. becca

      @badnicolez- Oh I totally agree! You know what else is HORRIBLY environmentally immoral? Eating fast food at all, particularly the packaging-intensive happy meals. And *MILK*… isn’t that incredibly more resource-intensive than water? Also, shopping at grocery stores? Shouldn’t you be growing your own food, or at least supporting local agriculture and farmer’s markets? And eating out at BUFFETS? Can you get any more consumption obsessed?

      And please don’t tell me there aren’t people at a multitude of weights who consume FAR fewer resources than you, because your staggering hypocrisy will just waste more electrons and probably fossil fuels (you don’t even have a solar powered computer, do you? You selfish, selfish scrawny little brat).

    8. Persons with high living standards have the freedom to CHOOSE to be either fat or healthy :
      apparently most of them CHOOSE to be FAT, anyone (including me ) born without any obesity evoking disease , claiming any other external factors is simply lier and lazy … Sad but true … Wake up and look at the mirror …

    9. pconroy

      I would personally cite 2 things that can make you fat, and are linked to being Conservative:

      1. Age – middle older people IMO are more likely sedentary than their teenage/younger co-ethnics and therefore more likely to be fat. Age is usually correlated with increasing Conservative tendencies.

      2. Children – having a brood of kids removed the time needed for doing personal things like regular exercise, also the very fact that you have kids usually means that you are not preening and trying to attract a mate – that you are already attached and so there is a relaxation of constraints on the need to be fit/not-fat – and a concomitant relaxation of the waistline! Of course having a brood of kids is also positively correlated with Conservatism.

      I say this as a middle-aged guy expecting his 3rd kid in a few weeks, and about 40 Lbs overweight – but when younger could do 300 crunches back-to-back and played various sports 7 days a week 😉

      Oh, and as a younger man was considerable more Liberal than I now am…

    10. badnicolez

      @becca (#7) – Ummm, yeah, I do grow my own *organic* herbs, veggies and fruits (gardening is fantastic exercise!), don’t eat out frequently (maybe twice per month, as I love to cook), and do shop local farmers markets, but they don’t always have everything I need. I very, very rarely eat at a fast food joint – ever seen “Super-size Me”? Gross. It’s not even real food. I’m getting pretty close to going vegetarian anyway. And how can I say “no” when my mom-in-law wants Chinese buffet on her birthday?

      But where I see all the morbidly fat people are at the grocery store, buffet, and fast food “restaurants.”

    11. Also worth noting that the obesity lines corrolate with high percentages of African-American population, an overwhelmingly political left leaning group, and that obesity is common among both very liberal African-Americans and very conservative whites in those regions.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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