New Data Shows The Best Way to Fight Obesity is to Look at Paychecks

February 6th 2015

Unemployment can whittle away at self-esteem and savings, but it has quite the opposite effect on waistlines. Recent studies have demonstrated a striking correlation between long-term unemployment and obesity.  

A Gallup poll found that the likelihood of obesity is 9.9 percent higher for those who are unemployed for at least a year, as compared to those unemployed for two weeks or less. Gallup also found that reports of high blood pressure and high cholesterol doubled for those who had been unemployed for at least 27 weeks. 

This troubling, but not altogether surprising, correlation, points to the interrelatedness of mental and physical well-being, and to the detrimental effects that both unemployment and obesity can have on well-being. Unemployment very often leads to stress, both emotional and financial, which may lead to the consumption of larger quantities of cheaper, unhealthier food. This, in turn, can lead to obesity, which often creates medical problems (with hefty price tags attached), all of which contribute to lower self-esteem. 

The most recent unemployment statistics released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that unemployment is currently as low as 5.6 percent. When allowing for unemployed and discouraged workers, however, this number shoots up to 11.2 percent.

In 2014, 27.7 percent of adults in the United States were considered obese. If a significant portion of the unemployed population (5.6 percent or 11.2 percent, depending on who you ask) is obese or at risk for obesity, how does this affect the U.S. in coming years? 

The cost of obesity 

It’s been estimated that the United States spends roughly $190 billion annually on medical costs for obese patients. In a list of direct and indirect costs of obesity provided by Harvard’s School of Public Health, direct costs include medical services such as testing and surgery, while indirect costs include increased cost of life insurance, additional workdays missed due to health issues, and lower wages (which some studies have found results from decreased productivity). 

There is no simple fix for obesity, nor is there an easy answer for those struggling to find work. But given the demonstrated correlation between the two, advocates looking to tackle one or the other issue should work together to lower both statistics and increase overall well-being. 

What can be done?

Increased healthy, cheap food options will make it easier for those facing unemployment or underemployment to avoid higher medical costs down the line, which according to Reuters, can add up to an additional $1,152 per year for obese men and $3,613 per year for obese women. 

Food deserts are often blamed for rising obesity in the United States, but recent studies suggest that lower income, not access to grocery stores, is more directly correlated to higher obesity. One in five American children received food stamps in 2014. It’s no secret that produce and high-quality protein and fiber are more expensive and less accessible than processed, packaged junk food. Fighting to change this reality will do more to lower the percentage of obese Americans than fad diets, which are often marketed to those who can afford it while ignoring those who can’t. 

Multi-pronged solutions

Let’s tax soda (or "pop," if you hail from a region of the country that persists in using this archaic terminology) to help combat obesity in children. Such a tax could help prevent 2.4 million cases of diabetes, 95,000 cases of heart disease, and 26,000 premature deaths in the next decade. Let’s increase the minimum wage and think critically about which crops are subsidized and which food corporations have massive lobbies in D.C., and how these subsidies and lobbies are affecting our bottom lines and our waistlines. 

Let’s increase access to affordable healthcare and childcare, and take a stand against discrimination, both overt and subconscious. Employees should not be paid less because of their weight – or their gender. Harassing and shaming people for their weight (or their gender) is often borne out of a lack of empathy on the part of the harasser, but other times, fat-shaming and other forms of trolling even have a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of the harasser - a lose-lose situation if I've ever seen one. 

Lowering unemployment rates and the percentage of the U.S. population that is obese has the potential to increase physical, emotional, and financial wellbeing - and Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree that this is a win-win. 

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