Fat and Sick? Chances Are You're Unemployed Too

The latest Gallup poll found skyrocketing rates of obesity for out-of-work Americans.

(Photo: Bytemarks/Flickr)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.

There’s no doubt that being unemployed causes stress. All that worrying about whether another position will come along and whether you’ll have enough money to cover living expenses is enough to make even the most optimistic American lose sleep. But there’s another side effect of not having a job: obesity.

According to a recent Gallup poll, people who are jobless for two weeks or fewer have an obesity rate of 22.8 percent. For Americans who are unemployed for 52 weeks or more, the obesity rate skyrockets to 32.7 percent. The data backs up that of a 2012 poll from the company that also found that weight and joblessness are intimately related.

The polling company has long tracked American’s obesity levels and the rates of people who self-report weight-related health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. In 2013, it interviewed 5,000 individuals who identified as long-term unemployed—out of work for 27 weeks or longer. It also conducted interviews with 13,000 people who were classified as short-term unemployed—jobless for fewer than 27 weeks. Along with having higher rates of obesity, long-term unemployed people were twice as likely to tell Gallup that they had high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

It’s not difficult to understand how less cash coming in leads to boxes of processed mac and cheese landing in a jobless person’s shopping cart. Fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t inexpensive choices for folks trying to survive off an unemployment check. Couple that with the depression that results from not having a job, and before you know it junk food becomes a comforting temptation.

But Gallup notes that it is tough to say if being unemployed is directly causing obesity. “Unemployment may cause some people to engage in behaviors that lead to health problems, while pre-existing health conditions may make it harder for others to find and keep work,” it writes. The report also points out that for some Americans, “both dynamics may be at work, perpetuating a negative cycle of declining job prospects and worsening health.”

Whether it’s a case of correlation or causation, the problem is something policy makers should be paying attention to, according to Gallup, given our sky-high rates of obesity. We need to ensure, it writes, that the long-term unemployed aren’t “caught in a negative cycle of joblessness and poor health.”

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