Who’s Healthier: Republicans or Democrats?

A useful answer to a useless question

Why the question should be asked

Upon seeing the topic of this essay, you likely became suspicious of my motives. You may wonder why this question is even worth asking. After all, how does it help anyone to know which political party is of the fat or fit?

There are two reasons. The first is, admittedly, far more unflattering to me (your author) than the second.

My original motive arose because debate on the topic has been construed into a battle for moral superiority of one political party over another. Too commonly, one party will point to their opponents and generalize them as fat, lazy gluttons, and will insinuate their occupation of a moral low-ground. By implying the failures of their opponents, the offending party can place themselves on a pedestal of personal discipline and moral superiority — the moral high ground.

In my observations, this line of reasoning finds its favored habitat in the rhetoric of far-right provocateurs (although I am sure it is not unique to them). For example, Tomi Lahren released the below tweet, insinuating a failure of personal discipline in today’s younger men and, by implication, a failure of the young liberal left.

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Additionally, Milo Yiannopoulos has written entire “lectures” on the topic of fatness and ugliness of liberals.

So, I concede, some of my motivation to write this was to correct the erroneous statements of people like Tomi and Milo, however ridiculous they are.

The second reason is one that evolved during the research process. While revealing which political party is fatter isn’t useful, the process of discovery can uncover related questions and answers which may prove useful. Additionally, how to perform research on this topic is philosophically intriguing. I’ll share these quandaries now.

Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

“With this therefore because of this.” Or, as a statistician would say, “Correlation does not imply causality.”

That is, just because two variables coincide with one another doesn’t necessarily mean they have a causal link. For example, if research showed that joggers also tend to eat a lot of broccoli, we might say that jogging causes a desire to eat broccoli (or vice versa). This may be true; however, it is far more likely that joggers and broccoli-eaters share a separate variable: a desire to be healthy.

How does this relate to political party affiliation and obesity?

Tomi and Milo have claimed that liberalism leads to weakness and fatness (or maybe vice versa, it’s unclear). They posit a causal link between the two. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that hypothetically there is a strong, positive correlation between liberalism and obesity. Does this mean liberalism causes laziness and gluttony, as Tomi and Milo claim?

The likelihood that adopting a particular political view has an effect on personal health is low. Far more likely is that there are other factors more powerfully predictive of health, such as average income, that are driving the correlation. A low income can reasonably be assumed to cause liberalism because liberal politicians generally support safety nets and welfare benefits. Also, low income causes obesity by resulting in diminished access to health foods, exercise spaces, and nutritional counseling. Therefore, low income can cause both liberalism and obesity. Whether this occurs in reality will be examined in the “Evidence” section

Taking into account the “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” phenomenon, consider the following maps for a demonstration of how, while it may at first seem simple to make assumptions about correlations, those assumptions are commonly misled.

The first map shows the obese population of America by county in 2012.


You can see that obesity is rampant in what the CDC has called the “diabetes belt,” which ranges from Oklahoma, down to Mississippi, and up into Kentucky and West Virginia. You might notice a similar pattern on this map of median income.


From just these two maps, it would seem that obesity and low-income are tightly associated, but remember that this correlation doesn’t prove causality. Additionally, the causal link could go either way. Obesity may cause low-income. We can logically reason that the causal link is more likely to be the other way around, but we can’t tell simply from this correlation. In fact, there may be no causal links between income and obesity at all, and the presence of obesity in the Diabetes Belt could be due to some other factor entirely. So what are some other possible factors?

Consider this map of black population distribution in America.

It seems that, at least geographically, being black is correlated with being obese and having a low income. But again, this doesn’t necessarily imply a causal relationship.

What if we add political party affiliation by state into the mix? Here were the electoral results from the 2016 election.

Source: I display the state-level map now because I will cite state-level studies later.

It is clear that, when looking at the state level, the diabetes belt is run by Republicans. However, in keeping with the previous district level-analysis, here is a map of America colored by congressional representative party affiliation.

Indeed, the diabetes belt is still primarily red, but it seems that the districts on the Eastern borders of Alabama and Mississippi — both with high black populations — are outlier blue territory.

So, in conclusion, even after looking at multiple different factors on multiple different levels, we haven’t actually answered any questions. In fact, we’ve managed to raise more questions. This is before we even consider factors such as age, non-black races, religion, gender, cost of living, employment, state and local government affiliations, and the infinite other factors that could powerfully influence obesity rates.

However, I refer once again back to Milo and Tomi. What would happen if we tried to answer the question they referred to: “Which party is healthier/fitter?” Suppose we magically removed all confounding facts such as race, age, religion, etc., and took two identical people: a Republican and a Democrat, and observed their health status. Which person would be healthier?

As you may realize, this is a pointless question. Two identical people with identical life experiences are unlikely to possess differing political views. Ideologies are developed over decades of life experiences, and they are often inseparable from a person’s age, gender, sexual orientation, religiosity, life prospects, etc. Obesity is subject to the same influences.

The philosophical question researchers must answer is whether they should try to control for possibly confounding variables, and if so, which ones? Various research teams have taken different approaches, so I will detail their findings in the evidence section.

In concluding this section, I only wish to reiterate that anyone who claims that correlation implies causality is wrong, and that anyone who insinuates moral failings from such a correlation (as Tomi and Milo have done) is woefully misinformed. This thesis will be strengthened as the evidence is presented.

The Evidence

In this section, I will lay out evidence from multiple studies that discuss health and body weight as it relates to political affiliations. The “State Level” section discusses correlations and implications regarding state level correlations. The “Other Correlations” section refers to studies using different variables, such as county or voter registration to find results. Finally, in the “Related Information” section, I note studies that, while not necessarily addressing associations between obesity and political affiliation, nonetheless add valuable information to the conversation.


By simply viewing the electoral maps and obesity incidence maps, it isn’t difficult to guess that conservatism correlates to obesity on a state level. A 2014 study by Herian, Tay, Hamm, & Diener, confirmed a correlation between state governments’ liberalism and their health.

The chart produced by Mother Jones with the data from the study illustrates the correlation.

Take into account that the graphs’ axis do not begin at 0

While the correlation between being a liberal state and exhibiting improved health is far from perfect, it is undeniable.

The researchers also found a correlation between low sick day usage and states’ political liberalism.

Again, the correlation is imperfect, but is is clear. To the unenlightened, this correlation would suggest that liberals are morally superior because they are either more disciplined in their health habits or they are more dedicated to their work. To actual researchers, this indicated no such conclusion, and instead it suggested that liberal states may have stronger healthcare systems that allow more access to better care, which aids workers in getting back on their feet faster.

Again, this is just guessing from correlations. There are, of course, infinite other possible underlying reasons. One variable that researchers tested was “social capital.”

Social capital is essentially a measurement of how strong a community is. Generally, community organizations such as religious groups or local sports leagues can increase social capital, whereas crime and vandalism decrease it. It can be measured by asking questions such as “if you lost your wallet and your neighbor found it, would you expect them to return it?”

Herian et al. found that, even more powerfully than liberalism, social capital was correlated to health.

Note Utah’s high level of social capital, likely due to virtual religious homogeneity.

This correlation is far stronger than the previously measured correlation of liberalism and health, and the researchers were quick to note that in the below passage.

“…the effect of social capital was moderated by liberalism such that social capital was a stronger predictor of health in states with low levels of liberalism. We interpret this finding to mean that social capital within a political unit — as indicated by measures of interpersonal trust — can serve as a substitute for the beneficial impacts that might result from an active governmental structure.”

Essentially, they argued that where the government failed to provide public health services, a high social capital could substitute.

In conclusion, it is clear that, while there is a strong correlation between liberalism and health on the state-level, the correlation is affected by a plethora of other factors that are far more likely to be causal. For more conclusive evidence of party affiliation relating to health, we must consider other types of data.


After viewing state-level correlations, the next logical step is to view county data. A 2013 study by Shin & McCarthy did just that.

Importantly, this study controlled for some variables in order to generate their conclusions, and they determined levels of Republicanism and Democratism by presidential candidate preference (In this case, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney), not by state government make-up as the Herian et al. study did. Here is a quote from their paper.

“After controlling for poverty rate, percent African American and Latino populations, educational attainment, and spatial autocorrelation in the error term, we found that higher county-level obesity prevalence rates were associated with higher levels of support for the 2012 Republican Party presidential candidate.”

On its own, understanding this may seem to only prove that Republicans have higher levels of obesity than Democrats. However, to the researchers, it offered political and cultural implications.

“Our results suggest that county-level obesity risk may be positively associated with established, county-level, voter preferences for Republican candidates who are more likely to emphasize a personal responsibility approach to reducing obesity risk than their Democrat counterparts, and who may downplay the role that government policies could play, despite the scientific consensus that a multi-sectoral approach is effective.”

These conclusions offer an odd contradiction. Republicans are more likely to believe that maintaining nutritional health is a personal responsibility, and yet, Republicans are also more likely to be obese (once some variables are controlled for).

A 2017 study by Krauss, Taetzsch, Maaliki, Mozaffarian, and Roberts adopted a different approach to the question. Whereas the correlations previously viewed used geography, this study used voting records and CDC data to find patterns. Here is the result.

“There was a strong positive association between rate of obesity and percent of votes received by the Republican presidential candidate, and a negative association of rate of obesity with percent of votes received by the Democrat presidential candidate.”

Even when the researchers controlled for factors such as race and income, these results held. This evidence serves to strengthen the conclusion that Republicans are more likely to be obese than Democrats.

A final study I will mention doesn’t view obesity directly, rather, it views morality.

Mortality is commonly used as a predictor of health in large studies. The reason for this is that large studies often rely (for budgetary reasons) on participant self-reporting, which can be subjective. It’s difficult to be subjective about being dead, so self-reporting of deaths can be considered accurate.

Because 1 in 4 Americans die from heart disease (CDC), and many more die from other nutrition-related causes, mortality can act as an imperfect proxy for nutritional health. A large and highly discussed 2015 study by Pabayo, Kawachi, and Muennig found similar results to the previously mentioned studies.

The researchers tracked a large group of people who reported multiple variables about themselves at multiple time points. At the end of the study, the variables were collected, and number of deaths between the intervals was recorded. The researchers were then able to correlate the deaths to the previously reported political identities of the subjects. While they found no strong correlation between mortality and party affiliation, they did find that those subscribing to ideologies such as conservatism and moderatism were 6% more likely to die than liberals during the study, indicating the possibility of superior longevity, and therefore health, of liberals. When they controlled for certain variables they discovered the following.

“Although researchers argue that the association between political party affiliation and political ideology, and health is explained by sociodemographic characteristics,1 ,2 associations were held when we controlled for these variables.”

In total, the evidence from these three studies, while not conclusive, is powerfully suggestive that Republicans suffer from nutritional and general health inadequacies more than liberals do, regardless of whether relevant variables are controlled for.

Because researchers have forayed into the subtleties of this question, there are some other takeaways that, while not directly related to obesity, are still useful and interesting to consider.


Thus far, the research I have cited discussed correlations between political affiliation and obesity rates. Now, I will discuss research that centers on correlations between political ideology and attitudes towards obesity — notably how those attitudes relate to the politics of obesity.

The first study I will note only acts as a background to the conversation. It was performed in 2005 by Oliver and Taeku. The summarized findings of the study are unsurprising: Liberals tend to support political solutions to obesity more than conservatives do.

A 2009 study by Colleen et al. added more subtlety to this finding. The research showed that while political party affiliation is important, far stronger correlations are found by looking at specific issues.

“…we found that measures of political ideology and partisan affiliation were less important predictors of policy support in the obesity domain compared with other more ideologically charged (e.g., abortion policy) or more established (e.g., health reform) health policy domains.”

This study shows that, even while party affiliation is a predictor for relations to obesity policies, it isn’t a strong one. Beliefs and identity are far stronger.

The study also discussed how subjects felt obesity should be thought of in the the social sphere. Specifically, it focused on how subjects relate to the claim that obesity is an addiction similar to smoking.

“Endorsing the obesity as addiction metaphor was positively associated with support for requiring warning labels on foods with high sugar or fat content, indicating that such foods may be addictive. The lowest individual blame metaphors (i.e., industry manipulation and toxic food environment) were consistently positively associated with policy enactment, whereas the high individual blame metaphor (i.e., sinful behavior) was negatively associated with policy support

In common English, this means that if people believe obesity to be the result of an addiction and/or they believe that industry has manipulated the public to be obese for their profit, then they are more likely to support political solutions to obesity. In contrast, people who consider obesity to be the result of gluttony and personal failure exhibit low support for policy solutions. A 2016 study by Moran et al. corroborated this finding. By viewing associations between belief in “obesity as addiction” and support for policy solutions, the study found the following.

“Overall, believing that products/behaviors are addictive was associated with support for policies intended to curb their use. If certain foods are found to be addictive, framing them as such may increase obesity-related policy support.”

While the cited studies in this section thus far haven’t mentioned liberalism or conservatism as they relate to support for political solutions to obesity, it isn’t hard to guess where the parties fall.

Liberals are probably more likely to believe in the “obesity as addiction” theory, and will therefore support policy solutions. Conservatives are probably more likely to believe in the “obesity as moral failure” theory and believe in personal development or cultural reform as solutions. It is, in fact, possible that both theories are correct depending on the case in question. The next piece of research shows how.

A 2015 paper by Clarkson et al. found this result after a review of research.

“Three studies document a clear difference in self-control as a function of political ideology, as political conservatism (versus liberalism) was consistently related to greater self-control.”

Understanding this, it is possible that adopting political approaches to reducing obesity for liberal areas is useful, whereas leveraging the superior self-control of conservatives could be more useful when dealing with conservative areas.

The final study I will discuss in this essay does not necessarily corroborate the previous citations, in fact, it may slightly contradict them. However, it is valuable information regardless.

A 2011 study by Niederdeppe, Shapiro, and Porticella examined how research subjects responded to various types of arguments, and how their responses varied by their political ideology. The subjects were presented one of three types of evidence: A page-long anecdotal story of someone’s struggles with obesity (narrative), a page-long description of the numerous societal factors at play (evidence), or a hybrid of the two with a half-page dedicated to each. A control group was given nothing. After being subjected to the treatment (or lack of treatment), the subjects were asked how likely they were to support societal/political solutions to obesity. The graph below illustrates the findings.

Clearly, liberals were most powerfully affected by the anecdotal (narrative) story, and were virtually unaffected by the evidence page. The researchers laid out the implications of this research in the passage below.

“A message including both a summary of evidence about the causes of obesity and a short personal narrative illustrating these causes was successful in increasing public perceptions that societal factors indeed contribute to obesity. These findings were consistent among both liberals and conservatives.”

In general, the researchers say it is safest to use a hybrid approach, but as you can see from the bar graph, if you know you are encountering a liberal, then the narrative approach is optimal.

So why do liberals respond so strongly to the narrative? It could be that they are already primed somewhat to view obesity as an addiction, and once they are given a prompt to enhance that belief, it increases drastically. Conservatives may have failed to respond to the narrative because they see obesity as a moral failure, so they may have felt unsympathetic to the character in the narrative. However, these are simply my best guesses.

In sum, the evidence of this section proves that obesity and health are associated with political party affiliation. Understanding these variations is extremely valuable for those wishing to alter political perspectives. Additionally, it is important to remember that the correlations shown here are only between political beliefs and opinions on obesity. It is likely that similar — and possibly more meaningful — correlations exist between opinions on obesity and other factors such as race, geographical location, income level, health status, religiosity, and the numerous other factors that influence our society.


At the outset of this project, I was pursuing a single answer to a single question: “Who is more likely to be obese, Republicans or Democrats?”

From the evidence I have cited here, the answer to that question is probably “Republicans.” This answer is only tentatively available after I examined correlation data by state, county, and whole hosts of other factors, and after researchers controlled for variables such as race and income.

However, the single answer conclusion is wholly inadequate to say the least, and it is certainly deceitful to ascribe any negative qualities to Republicans, republicanism, or conservatism due to the findings of this article. Such accusations are unhelpful. Far more useful information lies in the subtleties of the data. For instance, it is helpful to know that Republicans are more likely to ascribe obesity to a failure in personal responsibility, and they are likely to approve of — and maybe even more likely to be benefitted by — policies that promote using discipline to reduce obesity. In contrast, Democrats are more responsive to the argument that obesity is caused by factors unattributable to the obese person, and they are are more likely to approve of society-wide solutions to the problem.

There is one takeaway from this article that is absolutely true beyond even a shadow of a doubt: Milo and Tomi are totally, unequivocally, patently, wrong. There are three reasons for this.

  • One: Accusing liberals of being weaker, less healthy, or fatter than conservatives is objectively untrue, and making such a claim requires far more research and expertise than either of those pundits has.
  • Two: Even if political party affiliation is proven to be powerfully correlated with obesity, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the political affiliation or related ideologies have caused that affiliation. It also doesn’t mean that obesity causes affiliation with that political party. From purely correlational data, absolutely nothing can be concluded for sure.
  • Three: Indiscriminately assigning moral failings to an entire group of people because of a perceived lack of personal discipline is severely misguided. Obesity and similar conditions are caused by a profusion of variables, many of which are not seen — much less understood — at first glance. Even expert researchers disagree on many of these topics.

I hope that my adventure, while initially misguided, has produced some useful results, and I hope that some of my readers have gained a new appreciation for the various difficulties surrounding nutrition research and policy. I also hope I’ve shed some light on the diverse perspectives and attitudes that surround the topic of obesity in America.

While the debate on causes of obesity continues, there is one irrefutable truth: America’s obesity crisis must be dealt with. Our schools, our military, our economy, our workforce, and every other American institution is negatively affected by it. Fortunately, by observing the evidence, spending money where it must be spent, and leveraging interdisciplinary efforts lead by educators, doctors, dietitians, health providers, and politicians, there is no doubt in mind that solutions can be found.

Ben Chapman, 2017

“Only in the United States did the use of dieting to demonstrate character in an indulgent age take such intense form, from the early references to the moral failings of the fat to an ongoing fascination with dramatic struggles with weight that evoked the battles against sin of an earlier day….As with sin, the increasingly intense disapproval of fat, laced with moral and emotional overtones, divided middle-class humankind behind the saved and the lost, the thin and the obese, with a host of anxious strugglers uncomfortably in between.”— Peter N. Stearns “Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West”


Barry, Colleen L., et al. “Obesity metaphors: how beliefs about the causes of obesity affect support for public policy.” The Milbank Quarterly 87.1 (2009): 7–47.

Clarkson, J. J., Chambers, J. R., Hirt, E. R., Otto, A. S., Kardes, F. R., & Leone, C. (2015). The self-control consequences of political ideology. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 112(27), 8250–8253. doi:10.1073/pnas.1503530112

Herian, M. N., Tay, L., Hamm, J. A., & Diener, E. (2014). Social capital, ideology, and health in the United States. Social Science & Medicine, 10530–37. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.01.003

Krauss, A., Taetzsch, A., Maaliki A., Mozaffarian, D., Roberts, S. (2017). Association of Rates of Obesity with voting Patterns in the 2016 Presidential Election. FASEB Journal, 31(1 Supplement), 788–24.

Moran, A., Musicus, A., Soo, J., Gearhardt, A. N., Gollust, S. E., & Roberto, C. A. (2016). Believing that certain foods are addictive is associated with support for obesity-related public policies. Preventive Medicine, 9039–46. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.06.018

Niederdeppe, J., Shapiro, M. A., & Porticella, N. (2011). Attributions of Responsibility for Obesity: Narrative Communication Reduces Reactive Counterarguing among Liberals. Human Communication Research, 37(3), 295–323.

Oliver, J. E., & Taeku, L. (2005). Public Opinion and the Politics of Obesity in America. Journal Of Health Politics, Policy & Law, 30(5), 923–954.

Pabayo, R., Kawachi, I., & Muennig, P. (2015). Political party affiliation, political ideology and mortality. Journal Of Epidemiology & Community Health, 69(5), 423–431. doi:10.1136/jech-2014–204803

Shin, M. E., & McCarthy, W. J. (2013). The association between county political inclination and obesity: Results from the 2012 presidential election in the United States. Preventive Medicine, 57(5), 721–724. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2013.07.026

Who’s Healthier: Republicans or Democrats? was originally published in Extra Newsfeed on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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