Two of the biggest problems facing America today are unemployment and obesity – two seemingly unrelated but equally serious issues.  After some of the most difficult economic times since the 1930s, America’s unemployment levels peaked at almost 10% in 2009, leveling out to around 6.3% today[1].  Obesity, likewise, has more than doubled for both adults and children in the US since the 1970s, with around 69% of adults being overweight or obese, and 35% being obese[2].  More and more studies, however, are investigating the link between unemployment and obesity and as results start to flood in, it seems that they are not as unrelated as they seemed. 


Studies are starting to show that there is a significant link between unemployment and obesity, especially amongst unskilled workers who are struggling to find work.  In fact, a Gallup study suggests that if you are between 18 and 44 and unemployed, you are 30% more likely to be obese than your counterparts in full-time employment[3].  High-skilled workers, who may have had sedentary jobs that led them to develop their own fitness plan are more likely to continue exercising and may have savings to help them to eat healthy after losing employment.  Low-skilled workers, alternatively, tend to work physical jobs and use that to burn calories.  When the job is lost, their only form of exercise goes with it, and it can be difficult to get out of a cycle of watching TV and eating junk food[4].  Of course, these are sweeping generalisations but the statistics are hard to ignore. 

 Pockets of America from which blue-collar jobs have moved overseas or to cheaper areas of the country, or have simply been replaced by automation, have rates of obesity that correlate to their creeping unemployment.  Hagerstown, Md., is the perfect example.  It has been identified as the third heaviest place in the US, with a massive 37% of residents being obese – and it has an unemployment rate of 8.4% - 2.1% higher than the national average and 2.5% higher that the Maryland average[5]

 There’s more.  McAllen, Texas, has a 10% unemployment rate and a 38% obesity rate.  Yakima in Washington State has a 10% unemployment rate, whilst 36% of its residents are obese.  Toledo has a 7% unemployment rate, with 34% obesity.  It works the other way, too.  The Washington region with a 22% obesity rate, considered one of the healthiest areas in the country, also boasts a tiny 5% unemployment rate.  None of this should really be surprising though, given what we already know about obesity and its causes. 

 Low Income Areas and Obesity

It’s already accepted that your socio-economic background can have a massive effect on your health, and the correlation between low-income areas and obesity have been shown time and again.  People living in low-income neighbourhoods, such as those with high levels of unemployment, are more likely to base food choices on cost rather than nutrition.  With less money to spend, the unemployed resort to cheaper, less healthy foods[6]

 They are also less likely to have the money to run a car or pay for public transport, and therefore may need to rely on local convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.  These outlets tend to be filled with poor choices for health: foods that are high in saturated fats, processed carbohydrates, and simple sugars.  Foods that cause addictions as well as obesity and obesity-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, liver failure, and cancer[7].  It’s these food choices that led to the Gallup study results in 2012, which showed that not only do the unemployed suffer from a higher rate of obesity, but also from higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma[8]


Of course, the other link worth mentioning is that between unemployment and depression.  Andy Bell, the Chief Executive of the Centre for Mental Health in the UK claims that unemployment and money problems are among the main causes of depression[9] - and depression and obesity are similarly entwined.  Harry Zhang, an Old Dominion University health economist, published a study of just this, in which he claims that “for people living in areas with high unemployment, everything is messed up.  You have poverty.  High crime.  Low education levels.  And people rely on food to comfort themselves”[10].  Emotional eating is a big problem – people eat to make themselves feel better but then they feel guilt or gain weight that makes them feel worse, so they eat to make themselves feel better.  It’s a vicious cycle that always leads back to its starting point.  It’s not the only cycle entwined with all this though. 

 Discrimination and Perpetuation

Being overweight or obese means that you are less likely to get a job.  For the majority of the US, there are no laws regarding discrimination based on appearance and employers are within their legal rights to reject an applicant based on weight.  Studies show that discrimination against hiring obese people is high – whether it is through a fear that they wouldn’t be able to withstand the physical requirement of the job or because they do not like the ‘look’ that obese people create in front-line and customer-based job roles.  A massive 93% of human resources professionals would choose a ‘normal weight’ applicant over an obese applicant with the same qualifications and experience, whilst many agree that obesity is a medically valid reason not to employ or promote a person[11].  Not only that but obese people are likely to have a harder time passing the physical examinations that are a requirement for many job applications, due to the numerous obesity-related illnesses[12].  

 So, all this begs the question then – does unemployment cause obesity or does obesity cause unemployment?  In truth, the two issues, along with depression, socio-economic downturn, and many other factors are inextricably linked.  The only way to tackle one is to tackle them all and then maybe, just maybe, we’ll see an improvement all round. 


[1]{C} Steve Holt, 2014, The Surprising Link Between Unemployment and Obesity, [online], available at:, [accessed 08.12.2014]

[2]{C} Food Research and Action Centre, 2014, Overweight and Obesity in the U.S., [online], available at:, [accessed 08.12.2014]

[3]{C} Dan Witters, 2012, Employed Americans Have Better Health than the Unemployed, [online], available at, [accessed 08.12.2014]

[4]{C} Michael S Rosenwald, 2014, The Jobless Content With Weight Gain as they Search for Work, [online], available at:, [accessed 08.12.2014]

[5]{C} Ibid.

[6]{C} Holt, op. cit.

[7]{C} Victoria Froud, 2014, Food Desserts, [online], available at:, [accessed 08.12.2014]

[8]{C} Gallup, op. cit.

[9]{C} Andy Bell, 2011, Unemployment ‘can lead to depression’, [online], available at:, [accessed 08.12.2014]

[10]{C} Rosenwald, op. cit.

[11]{C} Juliette Kellow, Fattist Employers Need to Work Things Out, [online], available at:, [accessed 08.12.2014]

[12]{C} Rosenwald, op. cit.

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UNEMPLOYMENT AND OBESITY: THE VICIOUS CYCLE by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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