Study: When New Walmarts Open, People Get Fatter

Walmart is now the largest grocery store chain in the country, and a new study says that the more supercenters the company opens, the heavier the people living nearby become.

From the Montreal Gazette:

The researchers found that one new Walmart supercentre per 100,000 residents meant an average weight gain of 1.5 pounds per person sometime over a 10-year period dating from the store’s opening. It also boosted the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points, meaning that for every 100 people, two who weren’t obese ended up in that category after a superstore opened.

One of the study’s authors says the root cause is both the low cost of food at Walmart and the quality of the food sold there.

“I think the most obvious story is that Walmart lowers the price of foods and a lot of the foods it has big price advantages on are the processed, inner-aisle types of food that aren’t that good for you,” explains the researcher from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Additionally, he believes that Walmart’s price-slashing has a ripple effect at other stores: “It’s not just about Walmart underselling the competitor. It’s about the competitors cutting their prices in response to competition from Walmart. Someone might never step foot in a Walmart, but they still might pay less for their food.”

The study, which will be published in the March issue of the Journal of Urban Economics, found that women, low-income families and those in less densely populated areas are the ones most likely to experience weight gain after a new Walmart opens.

“We don’t want people to look at this and immediately say Walmart is evil. We want people to realize this is one of many things that are going on, and maybe some are good and some are bad,” said the study’s co-author. “Certainly our results should not be taken as, ‘Ban all Walmarts.’ It’s part of a very broad debate.”

Packing on the pounds blamed on . . . weight for it . . . Walmart [Montreal Gazette]

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  1. Tim says:

    My gut instinct is to say “correlation != causation,” but it looks like they controlled for a bunch of other factors.

    • skwigger says:

      I agree about correlation != causation in this case. Gaining an average of 1.5lbs, sometimes over 10 years is not a significant increase. Were there similar results for areas that did not gain a Walmart?

      • wrjohnston91283 says:

        From the linked article: “The researchers incorporated a variety of controls and tests in their study to ensure that other characteristics of the communities studied could have explained the weight gain.”

      • ludwigk says:

        Their analysis actually correlated on a county-by-county basis based upon the geographic distances to a Walmart, controlling for a ton of other factors, such as national weight gain, presence of restaurants, decreases in food prices, Sam’s club and other warehouse vendors, decrease in height of population, unemployment, etc. etc. so that the figure stated could be, to some level of statistical certainty, attributable to the placement of a Walmart super center.

        • Collateral Damage says:

          I don’t see that information anywhere in the article and it hasn’t been published in the JUE yet – can you give me a link (to the text of the study itself, if possible)?

    • ARP says:

      Yes, did they control for the average weight gain as a person ages. Also, given the number of Wal-Mart, how do you control for it nowadays?

    • Kate says:

      There are a lot of factors – such as time. As a nation, the US has gotten fatter over time.

      And there may be factors such as lack of jobs after the Walmart put a lot of local shops out of business. I suppose you might get fatter if you had no job suddenly.

      • trentblase says:

        “I suppose you might get fatter if you had no job suddenly.”

        Those damn fatcats in the unemployment line!

        • veritybrown says:

          Cheap food is usually fattening food. Meat and vegetables are far more expensive than the various sources of carbohydrates. And when you’re poor, carb-dense “comfort food” may be one of the few pleasures you have.

        • Kate says:

          Apparently you think you can’t really be unemployed if you aren’t literally starving?

      • Gramin says:

        Arg arg… Wal-Mart does not put mom and pop stores out of business.

      • Clyde Barrow says:

        Can the folks in the pictures from “People of Walmart” actually get fatter?

        Now THAT is a good research paper.

      • 99 1/2 Days says:

        Walmarts put people out of work? You have a source for that? Usually, Walmarts cause more businesses to flourish around them.

        And newsflash for the ignorant: Mom and Pops do not pay good wages, nor do they have good bennies.

    • ludwigk says:

      You can stop listening to your gut, because its stuck in blog mode. The crux of their analysis and research was in finding causation to a particular statistical certainty. If they couldn’t demonstrate causation, as economists they would have nothing to publish.

  2. misterfweem says:

    “We don’t want people to look at this and immediately say Walmart is evil. We want people to realize this is one of many things that are going on, and maybe some are good and some are bad,” said the study’s co-author. “Certainly our results should not be taken as, ‘Ban all Walmarts.’ It’s part of a very broad debate.”

    Preparing for this part of the discussion to be ignored in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

  3. FireJayPa says:

    Of course people that shop at Walmart get fat. The sodium laden treats consumed by the unwashed masses at best are unhealthy.

    And of course the people buying food at Walmart aren’t going there for fresh albeit poor quality produce or poultry. They are buying deli meats, processed foods and frozen garbage that’s horrible for you. Remember, if that 2000 calorie Chicken Pot Pie is on Sale for $2.99 they are still making a profit and you can be sure that it’s because of the quality of said ingredients.

    But that’s fine – keep eating unhealthy food, weigh down (see what I did there) the health insurance in this fine nation.

    • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

      There are certain produce items at Walmarts that are of good quality and reasonably priced. I won’t be buying manila mangoes or papayas there, but a bag of onions, or frozen veggies – sure.

      They don’t carry any more high fat and sodium items than most other chain grocers.

      • ChuckECheese says:

        Here in Phoenix I can no longer agree with your experience. Our Walmarts all have rather expensive produce now. For instance, $1/lb potatoes, $3/bag onions, $1.59 green peppers, $2 heads of lettuce, $1.50/lb carrots. Hispanic groceries have much better vegetable prices around here, and don’t forget to get some (Mexican) Mennonite cheese, which is great stuff.

        • pecan 3.14159265 says:

          I’d love to have those prices. I don’t consider any of those prices to be expensive in the DC area, which goes to show that different markets have different prices. It’s possible that in many of these areas in which Wal-Mart opens the prices are more reasonable for the locals in contrast to the prices other grocery stores (or convenience stores as it may be) charge..

        • dulcinea47 says:

          I pretty much never buy produce at Walmart, and a big part of the reason is that the produce section is tiny compared to the one at the store where I usually shop. I can’t vouch for all the prices, but last week I was there and needed some green onions, but they were literally twice as much as at my regular store. I didn’t buy them.

          • Me - now with more humidity says:

            Ours here in FL is huge… and they buy local when possible.

          • Michaela says:

            The produce section at Wal Mart is the largest produce section in my town. Actually, the “healthy” place (Fresh Market) doesn’t even carry uncut lettuce.

            If I need produce (which, I always do) I either head to Wal Mart, or the Kroger one town over.

        • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

          i’m still confused by a walmart express/boutique or something i saw in the Phoenix area a few years ago. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else. it looked like they were trying out something upscale. can’t find it on google right now so i suspect it closed, but maybe there’s something about the demographic there that relates to both an experiment in ‘high class’ walmart and increased costs at your local walmart? or they think the university students don’t know any better and stuck paying high prices?

          • pecan 3.14159265 says:

            You’re talking about the Neighborhood Marketplace Wal-Marts. I’ve never been to one, so I don’t know how it is, but it’s Wal-Mart’s attempt to be look more like Whole Foods and Wegmans.

            • Master Medic: Now with more Haldol says:

              They are grocery store only with a slightly better interior package. Same foods though.

          • ChuckECheese says:

            Others below have already answered your question, but Walmart Marketplaces are found in several cities across the US. I’ve seen them in OKC, Dallas, and in Phoenix. Phoenix has great grocery shopping. The number of choices here is staggering – there are Whole Foods, Sunflower Market/Sprouts, Fry’s (Kroger), Safeway, Albertsons, Trader Joe’s, and a number of local and regional chains, plus Asian and Hispanic supermarkets, and Walmarts and Super Targets.

            • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

              yeah, my friend is a couple of blocks from a fry’s and i enjoyed being able to use my kroger card and also to buy liquor inside the grocery store. there was plenty of variety from what i saw, i just don’t get a lot of chances to go grocery shopping on vacation.

        • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

          Ethnic markets do have great prices on most things. Their aren’t very consistent for quality, though.

          Mexican markets, I have plenty. Asian market is a 1 hour drive through the snow filled canyon: we don’t do it in the winter. Wife is Asian. Winter sucks.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      Not to harp on the other stuff, but healthy people eat deli meats too. We always have deli meat for sandwiches. Using deli meat in a sandwich makes for a much healthier meal at work than eating fast food.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      Can’t people buy all of those same things at the local supermarket?

      It’s also been my experience that in low income areas, Wal Mart typically has better produce and meat than the comparable supermarket. At the very least, Wal Mart is more consistent from store-to-store while a supermarket chain can vary considerably in quality.

      • Kate says:

        Not in my area. From what I’m getting, the Walmart starts out with good food and then starts switching it out after a while.

    • Kate says:

      From what I understood, the study said people who didn’t shop at Walmart got fatter too, so it affected the whole area, not just the Walmart shoppers

    • ChuckECheese says:

      Health insurance in the U.S. isn’t (more) expensive because of Walmart shoppers and fast-food eaters. It’s expensive because people in the medical-industrial complex make some of the highest wages in the U.S. economy, because the cost of goods and services in the medical industry are inflated compared to similar goods and services in the remaining economy, and because they’re in bed with a parasitic middleman known as private health insurance. This leads to the U.S. having the highest expenditures on medical goods and services in the world, despite a third of our citizens not having access, and many of the remaining two-thirds having only partial access. Please learn to speak from fact and not from the self-congratulatory high you got from eating steamed kale last night.

      • FireJayPa says:

        Actually you’re wrong. Health insurance just like other forms of insurance (auto, home, fire , volcano) are collectivism by means of which people collectively pool their risk.

        So in this case they are assuming that a large chunk of people that pay for insurance never really need to use insurance. However, when you have all of these people of poor social-economic background eating over-processed slop from places like Walmart it increases the risk that something will go wrong (heart attack, Diabetes, whatever). So then the collective group as a whole is punished as their rates go up to offset the difference of all the fatties.

        The same principle holds true for why Car Insurance is cheaper in the middle of no where Iowa than LA or DC or NYC. It’s all about risk…and as more of these people get FAT the risk increases that something happens.

        Oh and for the record I didn’t eat steamed kale last night, I made a roast in my slow cooker with some red potatoes and low-sodium condensed mushroom soup. I would have eaten a bit healthier but it’s a work night.

        • LadyTL says:

          That may be how it is supposed to work but that is how it works currently. Health insurance particularly on the individual level is a big scam. You have to go to X doctors or they won’t pay, you have to go to X emergency rooms or they won’t pay. They load on tons of conditions and limits so that their stock prices go up and they don’t have to pay out. All the major companies even have special departments devoted to going through truly sick peoples files when they get sick for any kind of minor error to use that to dump them and send them a bill for all treatment for anything they ever had. They are not in the business of health care, they are out to rob people while claiming they are in the business of health care.

        • FrugalFreak says:

          You hold your right leaning ideals, aren’t you proud of yourself @@

          If the wealthy business owner would pay better wages, they could afford better food and healthcare. As long as tea baggers keep greed on first base, It will never get better.

          This is the decade of low taxes and Me, Me, Screw poor, Me!

      • Spiro_Agnew says:

        The medical industry and private insurers are actually at odds with each other in just about every way possible.

        • ChuckECheese says:

          Not yet – they need each other too much. It’s a sort of codependency. The med insurance industry won’t be able to survive without the doctors’ blessing – otherwise we’d have single payer. And the doctors know if the health insurance industry goes away, we’ll have single payer, and much more stringent controls on payments for medical goods and services. So it’s sorta like a really hot woman being married to a really rich guy. They both think they might do better, but they both have it so good that they don’t push the envelope too much, and they drink and fight a lot, and the makeup sex is too good to give it up altogether, because they might end up broke and alone.

      • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

        Don’t forget that those of us who pay for health insurance and health care subsidize those who don’t.

        • ChuckECheese says:

          But I’ll bet the amount of $$ spent on health care services marketing, drug marketing, inflated costs for everything, and the costs of feeding a health care insurance oligopoly is far, far more than the increased health care costs incurred by society as a result of some people having less than stellar eating habits. And let’s not single out the chubs. Let’s include all unwise activities that lead to medical misfortune, including bungee-cord jumping, drunk unprotected sex, (helmetless) motorcycle riding, wife-beating, et al. Too bad the health insurance industry will never allow me access to the data to prove my point.

    • Megalomania says:

      The worst steak I’ve ever eaten was from Walmart. It had the texture of pork, and to this day I don’t understand how that could be..

    • PercyChuggs Was Found At JFK Airport says:

      People like you still exist?

  4. DeadFlorist says:

    Either that or Wal-Mart is run by brilliant people who can predict which areas are going fattie and open stores to cater to the burgeoning market/waistlines.

  5. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    People who are at a social, financial, and educational disadvantage are more likely to make the poor decision of buying more processed “inner-aisle” foods? Get out.

    Wal-Mart’s efforts to lower prices drive people into the store and these people aren’t deviating from the kinds of food they buy, they’re just buying it cheaper and probably buying more because Wal-Mart made it cheaper to buy.

    • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

      Exactly. They have even more choices in a Walmart than in a convenience store, but continue to choose the same foods – only buying more of the same. I can eat healthy from a Walmart, it’s my fault if I choose the pizza instead of the salad.

      • ARP says:

        I generally agree with your assessment that low income people were buying crap food. Now that food prices may be marginally cheaper, they’re just buying more of it, rather than switching to healthier choices.

        But a Wal-Mart may drive out grocery stores or other locations that carry healthy food. So, they’re the only game in town. If their produce prices are higher than what was in the stores WMT replaced, then people could be driven to lower priced, processed food.

        • alana0j says:

          Ok the low income thing comes as a sting to me, I’m workin two jobs and taking care of my daughter by myself, I do have to utilize food stamps and definitely qualify as low income. That said, I get made fun of by friends because of how hard I try to focus on healthy foods. I buy whole grain everything, low fat cheese, skim milk, lots of fruits and veggies, etc etc you get the point. I shop at Wal-Mart not only because it’s cheap and has almost everything I need, but it’s only 2 miles from my house which is super convenient.

    • Kibit says:

      All types of people eat crap, over processed cheap food. Not just low income, socially and educationally disadvantaged people. Well educated people eat crap food too. I find myself explaining my healthy, unprocessed and organic diet to a lot of people. Well educated people, people that make over a million a year, people that work out 5 days a week and run marathons. It is truly amazing how many people eat crap food.

  6. framitz says:

    Did they study similar populations in areas where there isn’t a Walmart?
    I suspect this study is flawed.

    Not defending Walmart by any means, I don’t shop there anyway.

    • Tim says:

      RTFA: “The researchers incorporated a variety of controls and tests in their study to ensure that other characteristics of the communities studied could have explained the weight gain.”

      • framitz says:

        I did RTFA. Not much of an explanation of the controls used at all.

        • lihtox says:

          The actual article (i.e. the paper) is coming out in March: “The research will be published in the March issue of the Journal of Urban Economics.” Criticism (rather than speculation) over control factors should probably wait until then, eh?

    • ludwigk says:

      Why don’t you read the paper before settling upon baseless suspicions? There’s a good 8-10 pages of controls and variables accounted for in their analysis.

      “Areas without Walmarts”??? Gah! Did you think the study was written by a couple of 8th graders? These guys are well-published research economists! Is this really indicative of the divide between the average netizen and academia? Do you really know nothing about scholarly research?

  7. haggis for the soul says:

    Walmart can just start bundling crappy diet products to go with their crappy food. Win-win!

  8. dulcinea47 says:

    What’s the average weight gain over ten years for the general population? Or for people who don’t live near a walmart supercenter? It’d be nice to be able to compare.

    • framitz says:

      Thanks, that was one of the points I meant to make.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      And for that matter, what about the non-supercenters? There are regular Wal-Marts that also sell some food products. If you’re buying Doritos, you probably don’t care whether they’re at a supercenter or a regular Wal-Mart. If you want a head of lettuce, you might not be able to get that at a regular Wal-Mart.

  9. tekmiester says:

    They would have to do a REALLY good job controlling for variables on a study lie this one.

    To me, if people are gaining 1.5lbs over 10 years, that sounds like a good thing, considering how much fatter everyone else has gotten.

    Plus, hasnt everyone gotten fatter?

  10. duncanblackthorne says:

    As much as I hate Walmart, I think in this case they’re just the enabler, not the core of the problem. My observation is that the core of the problem is twofold:

    1. People don’t keep track of what and how much they’re eating.
    2. People don’t want to keep track of what and how much they’re eating, they’d rather be blissfully ignorant of it.
    • Kate says:

      Or people have tried that it was completely useless in the long run as are most methods for losing weight.

      • Reading_Comprehension says:

        You’re saying a person’s weight is determined by fate?

        • FireJayPa says:

          If you’ve read enough comments in the threads…no one is at fault for being fat. It’s either genetics or just fate or karma or something else.

          NOM NOM NOM

          • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

            Nothing is anyone’s fault.

            • Kate says:

              Shall we start blaming men for losing their hair now? I’m sure there are a lot more things we can make people feel needlessly guilty about.

        • Kate says:

          Lovely erroneous dichotomy.

          The point is 98 percent of all fat people have never been able to lose weight long term, no matter what was tried, with the exception of bariatric surgery. This implies that all those diets/exercise regiments or mind control tricks don’t work, for whatever reason, probably because there are some basic fallacies in the conventional reasoning of how bodies and fat works.

  11. evilpete says:

    When wallmart opened in Clearlake CA, the locals dressed up to go shopping there

  12. RickinStHelen says:

    My work takes me to a lot of small rural areas. In many of these, there are no super markets, sometimes no true grocery stores either, but simply the convienance/gas/quick food/ grocery places. When a Walmart goes into an area like these, it is often the best choice for shopping. It also can mean the difference between a 10 minute trip to the store, versus an hour or more to a regular grocery in a larger community. I could see the better availability of foods contributing to weight gain, but I still think 500 channels on TV, game consoles and the internet probably have a bigger part in it.

  13. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    I saw a box of chocolate coated graham crackers at Walmart for like $2. It was their house Value brand or whatever. Seemed like a reasonable snack alternative – it’s graham crackers after all, right? Has to be healthier than a candy bar.

    One graham cracker – ONE – had one third my entire daily fat. That is insane! It’s WORSE than a candy bar, and was half the size.

    This is why Walmarts make you fat.

    • Master Medic: Now with more Haldol says:

      So what you mean is that the lack of personal responsibility to not eat 4000 calories a day is Walmart’s fault?

      • Torgonius wants an edit button says:

        Walmart is phasing out receipt checkers and replacing them with people who hold a gun to your head forcing you to buy crap.

    • 99 1/2 Days says:

      You thought chocolate coated graham crackers were healthy and that’s Walmart’s fault? Snort.

  14. Gardius says:

    Hmm…since this seems to focus on Walmart Supercenters, maybe the correlation has to do with the Macdonald’s restaurants that are often inside them? I’m sure the quality of the food at Walmart, combined with the low price, is a major factor. But every Walmart Supercenter I’ve been to in Canada has has a Macdonald’s in it, with signs urging you to buy some fries for the road. Hell, the newest Supercenter near my house has a Macdonald’s AND Tim Horton’s inside of it! I would like to see the study expanded to non-Supercenter locations, since I think fast food may be an additional culprit.

    • Awesome McAwesomeness says:

      It’s McDonald’s and not MacDonald’s. And, for everyone else, Walmart only has an s on it if you are talking about several stores. It is Walmart, not Walmarts. And, while I am at it, it is Valentine’s Day, not Valentime’s day, and you would say one year old, not one years old.

      I think I just covered about every pet peeve I have right there. Rant over.

    • ludwigk says:

      The study actually controlled for the effects of McDonalds in the Walmarts, along with McDonalds in the area, and restaurants per capita in the area by county.

  15. redhouse387 says:

    Isn’t America, in general, getting fatter? So no matter where Walmart builds or not builds, people are getting fatter.

  16. PercyChuggs Was Found At JFK Airport says:

    I lost 52 pounds in 5 months this past spring-summer, and I bought all of my groceries from Walmart. Guess what I paid for with all the money I saved shopping at Walmart? A gym membership. This study can kiss the thinnest part of my rump!

    • jokono says:

      Best post in the entire thread.

    • Outrun1986 says:

      Congrats! But from the other posts it does seem like the selection of foods available in Walmart varies greatly. Perhaps the walmart you shop at is one of the good ones. Walmart here probably has more healthy groceries since they have a greater variety of products than anywhere else. The produce section takes up at least 50% of the front of the store so it is huge. The frozen foods section is also very small, and at other grocery stores it is much larger and in some stores the frozen foods take up over 50% of the store, especially Sams Club where 75% of the store is frozen foods.

      • PercyChuggs Was Found At JFK Airport says:

        The stuff I buy is probably available at every Walmart: bananas, frozen skinless chicken breasts, non fat yogurt, etc.

        I don’t care where you go to buy your groceries. You could get fat by just shopping at Whole Foods, and sitting on your butt all day. Diet and exercise is the key, and you can it regardless of where you are shopping.

  17. queenofdenial says:

    I work a second, evening job during the holidays and therefore at times have to shop at Super Walmart because the only grocery store in town is closed when I get off work. What I noticed when trying to purchase items to make dinner for my family was that there is little to no selection of items used to make home-cooked meals (plus Walmart does such a stellar job re-stocking…). But the convenience food selection is quite large. From now on I will blame any weight gain on the fact that there is a Super Walmart in my town.

  18. Jueycruiser says:

    The best part of this post is how many commenters were like, “wait a minute, lets think about this SCIENTIFICALLY.” :) Just because two things happen at the same time does NOT mean one caused the other, lets look at the bigger picture because some third factor could be causing more walmarts AND higher weights…or, lower income jobs at walmart affects the local economy in a way that less people can afford high quality food…OR! maybe walmart pumps chemicals into the water supply that causes hormonal disruption in locals, causing weight gain community-wide?

  19. FrugalFreak says:

    So you’d rather people pay high prices to eat when so many can barely afford to eat at all? Way to be in touch with normal people. Now go shop Your organic store study writers..

  20. gman863 says:

    Wal-Mart carries at least as much “healthy” food as a typical grocery store. It’s what people choose to buy and eat that determines weight.

    As for killing off competitors and having the best prices, I have issues with both statements.

    Most of the grocery chains that have tanked or downsized (A&P, Winn-Dixie, Albertson’s, etc.) were marginal to horrible to begin with. If people can get the same crappy products and service at Wal-Mart for 15-20% less it’s a no-brainer.

    Wal-Mart cannot kill retailers who offer better products, service and competitive prices. The rapid continued growth of stores such as H-E-B, Publix and Wegmens proves this.

  21. Rhizzo says:

    Maybe people could just learn to eat in moderation rather than trying to statistically find fault with Walmart? Interesting study though.. I’m wondering if there’s a correlation between a Starbucks opening up and the number of unemployed hipsters in the area.

  22. Outrun1986 says:

    The groceries are cheaper at Walmart so people buy more of them, thus people eat more and they get fatter. We just had a walmart open up not too long ago here. I obviously don’t have any examples of people getting fatter just because walmart opened but I can tell you that people wipe the store of groceries while still shopping the same amount at the other grocery stores. Theoretically when another huge grocery store opens up you expect traffic to even out or be down at the other stores… nope not here, when another grocer opens up people just buy more groceries and therefore eat more. People wipe out all the grocers in this area, and it doesn’t matter what time of the month it is.

    I’d like to see what happens when a Sam’s club opens up in an area that has not had a club store before. We belong to Sam’s club and the people I see shopping there are FAR FAR larger than the people I see shopping at the other grocery stores, in general that is. I guess bigger packages equals bigger people, when you have more of some food around the house in a larger package you are going to eat more of it.