Does unemployment make you fat?

May 12, 2014, at 4:45 PM

A provocative Washington Post article this morning highlights the effect of long-term unemployment on the waistlines of job-seekers. From a calories in, calories out perspective, this correlation would seem to be so obvious that it might not deserve the newspaper column inches devoted to it. If you work, you're working, and you're burning calories. If you don't work, you're probably more sedentary, and you're burning fewer calories. Ergo, your weight increases.

This explanation also fits nicely with preconceptions we have about fat people. They are lazier, we think, simply unwilling to motivate themselves to move more.

The science, alas, does not dovetail with our common sense.

Stress, it turns out, is the common ether that interacts with unemployment, activity, health, and food. Chronic stress from chronic unemployment can change your physiology completely independent of your level of effort. Chronic stress associated with stigma, with family pressure, with having to make ends meet, with having to adjust your relative level of consumption, with having to make hard choices about what to buy — all of it influences how we live on a moment-to-moment basis.

Consider one — just one — chemical in your body.

Stress screws with the baseline levels of cortisol. Cortisol is an exquisitely complex hormone. Our bodies depend upon us having a regular schedule of sorts so the body can time its release of cortisol to match periods when our bodies need it. Stress throws off that schedule. It's also highly correlated with higher levels of cortisol.

Higher levels of cortisol — something that psychological stress itself can produce — effect everything from carbohydrate metabolism to sleep to mood to wakefulness and energy to the way the body distributes the fat it stores. No matter how healthy your outlook is, there's a decent chance that stress associated with being unemployed is going to mess you up somehow. The loop between stress, depression, and weight gain is more insidious and harder to break as time goes by, too.

If you're unemployed and have the resources to keep spending money at a gym, or buying healthy food, or getting regular stress-reducing massages, you might be at a lower risk for gaining weight.

But, of course, not having money — not having resources — means that most folks who don't have jobs cannot reduce their stress in healthier ways.

It's illogical to blame people for failing to "be" healthier when being healthy, broadly considered, is something that requires access to resources, to good health care, and to a community environment that does not contribute to the stress already experienced by the long-term unemployed.

If there's any good news, it's this: Having a solid support network of friends and family who will help you when you're unemployed generally correlates with a less stressful experience.






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