Why are women slimmer than men in developed countries?

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Economics and Human Biology, 2018, 30 pp. 1 - 13
Issue Date:
Full metadata record
© 2018 Elsevier B.V. Women have a lower BMI than men in developed countries, yet the opposite is true in developing countries. We call this the gender BMI puzzle and investigate its underlying cause. We begin by studying time trends in Japan, where, consistent with the cross-country puzzle, the BMI of adult women has steadily decreased since the 1950s, whereas the BMI of adult men has steadily increased. We study how changes in energy intake and energy expenditure account for the over-time gender BMI puzzle using the Japanese National Nutrition Survey from 1975 to 2010, which provides nurse-measured height and weight and nutritionist-assisted food records. Because long-term data on energy expenditure do not exist, we calculate energy expenditure using a steady-state body weight model. We then conduct cross-country regression analysis to corroborate what we learn from the Japanese data. We find that both energy intake and energy expenditure have significantly decreased for Japanese adult men and women and that a larger reduction in energy expenditure among men than women accounts for the increasing male-to-female BMI gap. Trends in BMI and energy expenditure vary greatly by occupation, suggesting that a relatively large decrease in physical activity in the workplace among men underlies the gender BMI puzzle. The cross-country analysis supports the generalizability of the findings beyond the Japanese data. Furthermore, the analysis suggests the increasing male-to-female BMI gap is driven not only by a reduction in the energy requirements of physically demanding work but also by weakening occupational gender segregation. No support is found for other explanations, such as increasing female labor force participation, greater female susceptibility to malnutrition in utero, and gender inequality in nutrition in early life.
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