Education, Women and Obesity: A HealthCentral Explainer

SSuchy Editor
  • For women, education and income matter


    As scientists and public health experts attempt to analyze  the new state-by-state obesity rates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month, one thing that’s clear is that no one factor, be it environmental or behavior changes among the population, is responsible  for such a dramatic increase in the number of overweight Americans.  However, past numbers have suggested that education and income levels are a very important part of the obesity puzzle, especially for women.


    According to the CDC’s data, the farther along a woman is in her education, the less likely she is to be obese.  Specifically, women with no high school degree had a 42.1 percent obesity rate, women with a high school diploma had a 39.8 percent obesity rate, and women with some college education had a 38.4 percent obesity rate.  Among female college graduates, however, only 23.4 percent were obese, marking the largest drop-off among the education brackets.

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    But why are highly educated women less likely to be obese than women with less formal education or even their educated male counterparts? There is no simple answer, but a few studies have shed some light on possible explanations.


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    Painting the picture


    Women with a college degree are more likely to hold a job outside the home, which implies that they have a steady income and fall somewhere in the middle to upper class income brackets.


    Women often are also more health-conscious than men and make most of the buying decisions for the household--food, clothing, cleaning products).  This is why so many commercials for household and food products are specifically targeted to women.


    Education, social class and life expectancy


    A study published in the August, 2012 issue of Health Affairs found that people with more education and of a higher socio-economic class have a longer life expectancy than those with less education and who are less affluent. 


    A closer look at the findings echoed a similar correlation between education and life expectancy that CDC’s obesity statistics revealed: white women with less than 12 years of education lived five years fewer than white women with more than 12 years of education.


    Many variables factor into life expectancy, but generally people who have a normal body mass index and avoid obesity will live longer, healthier lives. 


    This look at education’s impact on life expectancy concludes that people with higher levels of education are more likely to live longer, especially highly educated women.


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    A precedent set in college


    A study at the University of Missouri with undergraduate women found that the focus of health efforts by college-aged women was based more on achieving a certain appearance – often an appearance imposed by media messages – than to actually improve their health.  


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    What this means is that women in this particular demographic often place a higher value on weight loss--sometimes dramatic weight loss--when they plan their meals and exercise routines.  As a result, their health efforts can often become distorted and unhealthy, although the women are more likely to stay thin. 


    Social pressures and discrimination


    After these women graduate from college, the pressure to maintain a certain figure appears to follow them into the work force.


    A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that obese women are more likely to be discriminated against when interviewing for a job and are more likely to have a lower starting salary than women who are not obese.


    According to another study published in the journal Obesity, women who were once overweight or obese face discrimination even after they lose weight. 


    The connection


    Generally speaking, women who are more educated are more likely to hold jobs outside the home, and therefore are more exposed to scrutiny about their looks  and face more potential discrimination based on their weight. As a reaction,  educated women can be more motivated  to aggressively fight against weight gain, which could help explain  the dramatic drop in obesity rates among college educated women.


    Furthermore, the same women who face these pressures from their work and social environments, are usually more able to afford the things that can help them avoid weight gain: gym memberships, healthy food, health care and health insurance.






    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prevalence of obesity in the United States, 2009-2012.  January 2012. Retrieved from:


    Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Obesity and socioeconomic status in adults: United States, 2005-2008.  December 2010. Retrieved from:


    University of Illinois at Chicago (2012, August 6).  More Education, socioeconomic benefits equals longer life. Science Daily.


    University of Missouri-Columbia (2012, August 13). For young adults, appearance matters more than health, study suggests. Science Daily.



Published On: September 10, 2012