The Gasoline Diet

July 27th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Will higher prices at the pump mean lower numbers on the scale? One researcher thinks so.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It makes intuitive sense that walking more and driving less would cut down on the nation’s obesity in general, but recent studies are attempting to quantify correlations among higher fuel prices, shorter commutes, and the nation’s potential for weight loss. Could price hikes at the pump translate into lower numbers on your scale?

Last week, The Economist put together a fascinating chart based on studies by Sheldon H. Jacobson, a researcher at the University of Illinois. Jacobson’s work suggests that if every licensed driver in the United States drove 36 miles per day – rather than their current average 37 miles per day – five million fewer adults would be obese by 2017.

Interestingly, the study found a “large time lag” – six years, in fact – between the vehicle miles traveled per licensed driver and their effect on obesity. So the chart correlates miles traveled in 2004 with obesity in 2010. “This near-perfect correlation (99.6%) permits predictions about obesity rates,” The Economist article asserts. Optimistically, since mileage fell in 2007 and 2008, we could see a 24 percent drop in obesity by 2014.

Jacobson’s team isn’t the first to correlate less driving with a slimmer public. Charles Courtemanche, an economics researcher of Washington University in St. Louis, has been publishing articles to this effect since 2007.  In a recent article authored for Economic Inquiry, he posits that increasing gas prices by one dollar could cut obesity rates by 10 percent over seven years and save an estimated $11 billion in health care costs.

Incidentally, the alleged ill effects of driving don’t seem to end there. A recent study at Umea University in Sweden suggested that shorter commuting times might also help people stay married. Umea researchers found that couples with one partner commuting for longer than 45 minutes are 40% more likely to divorce, and are also likely to suffer from pain, stress, general dissatisfaction and – you guessed it – obesity. 

Of course, correlation doesn’t mean causation. The Economist notes that the authors of the University of Illinois study “…did not control for factors such as diet, income and lifestyle. Additionally, they did not explore the possibility that the larger, and thus more immobile, people become, the more they drive.”

What’s your take? Are the studies a no-brainer, or something to chew on during your next commute to the fast-food drive-thru?