The Surprising Link Between Unemployment and Obesity

New research connects joblessness with weight gain.

(Photo: Flickr/sifu_renka)

May 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

During the darkest days that the American economy has seen since the Great Depression, the number of jobless Americans doubled over five years, peaking at 10 percent in October 2009, thanks in no small part to a housing crisis marked by corporate greed. While the economy has steadily added jobs, dropping the unemployment rate to 6.3 percent, there are pockets of America, such as Rockford, Ill.; Yakima, Wash.; and McCallen, Texas, where double-digit rates persist.

These communities are also among the fattest in the nation, as judged by their obesity rates. The Washington Post put out a story this week examining the correlation. The piece draws heavily on a 2012 Gallup survey that found that unemployed Americans are more likely to be obese than those who work either part- or full-time. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma were also higher among the unemployed.

“You don’t even feel like going outside to take a walk around the block,” Eric Steiner of Hagerstown, Md., who gained more than 50 pounds after being laid off five years ago, told the Post. “You eat more junk food. You’re so depressed you just want to put a gun to your head.”

To many, the story and statistics illustrate the intertwined nature of our lives—that finances affect health, for good or ill. This is true with food. With less money to spend, the unemployed may resort to cheaper, less healthy food options than their employed neighbors. The increase in corporate wellness programs, wherein employees’ healthy habits are supported at work, may also be a factor in keeping obesity lower among the employed.

But according to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, maybe we should all be thankful for the unemployment-obesity correlation. The pundit’s statements about the issue on Outnumbered on Wednesday turned more than a few heads.

“All of us should be happy about one thing, and it’s that for the first time in human history you have a country whose poor people are fat. So this does show this sort of amazing abundance,” he said.

When asked by his cohost to clarify his statement, he attempted to explain:

For the last however many millennia, poor people starved to death. And this is a country that’s so rich, whose agriculture sector is so vibrant and at the cutting edge technologically, that our food is so cheap, poor people are fat! I mean, I don’t know. We shouldn’t take that for granted.

Did you catch that? Carlson actually thanked industrial agriculture for producing cheap, caloric food that is affordable for the unemployed. Never mind that a study last year definitively linked cheaper food with higher body mass index, that cheaper foods wreak havoc on our hearts, and that some believe excessive sugar is worse for us than drugs. No, as Carlson sees it, we should be happy our poor are only fat, not dying of starvation. But as we’ve reported here many times before, malnutrition refers as much to the quality of the foods we eat as it does to the quantity.

Carlson went on to say that there’s a “cultural divide” with obesity, and “there’s not a single fat person on the street” in rich neighborhoods. But the data simply doesn’t support this notion. The Gallup study and the Post report pertained to unemployment, for one, not necessarily poverty. In fact, a study released just last year showed that as men’s income increases, their likelihood of being obese goes up as well. For men of color, the obesity rate is even higher for those earning higher incomes.

So as more Americans get back to work, and hopefully get thinner in the process, perhaps Carlson can stick to whatever it is he does on Fox News and steer clear of issues about which he knows little.