Junkfood Science: You think <i>your</i> job is stressful....

April 03, 2007

You think your job is stressful....

What if your job could be making you fat?

Researchers at the University College London examined the data on 6,895 men and 3,413 women in civil service jobs who signed up for the Whitehall II Study between 1985 and 1988. The study particpants were mostly white and were all of “normal” weight at the beginning of the study. Over the course of 19 years of follow-up, these adults underwent repeated evaluations for job demands and control, social support and stress; as well as clinical examinations measuring a multitude of health parameters. Last year, the researchers reported that those in the lowest employment grades had twice the risks for heart disease and diabetes.

In the current issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, they reported that the higher the levels of prolonged work stress — defined as having heavy demands, little decision-making power and little social support — the higher the risks for developing obesity and pot bellies. It was most significant among women, with low employment grade alone doubling their risks, and those with three job stress measures having more than triple the risks.

This work effect remained even after adjusting for the popularly believed “bad” lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking; low intakes of fruits, vegetables and dietary fiber; alcohol consumption; and low levels of physical activity. They found only untenably small relationships with these lifestyle behaviors. “Differing behaviors neither confound nor fully explain the work stress effect,” they wrote. Socioeconomic position didn’t matter much, either. “Our findings highlight the importance of ...the wider experience of social inequality.”

Piles of research have found higher weights and rounded tummies among people in the lower rungs of our society and even at the lower tiers within groups and workplace departments. We see it notably in population-wide statistics among minorities and those stuck in jobs with little decision-making power, for example. Popular assumptions are often that these people lack the resources and education to eat ‘right’ and take responsibility for ‘healthy lifestyles.’ Researchers looking more closely, however, have been increasingly tying it with stress, discrimination and social stigma.

And it's this stress, discrimination and stigma that appears especially unhealthy. As multiple studies have documented, deaths from heart disease are nearly four times higher among those in the lower end of each job grade, even after accounting for the traditional health “risk factors” such as smoking, weight, blood pressure, blood lipids, etc. Government health statistics, for instance, show diabetes and its complications, heart disease, high blood pressure, and the incidences and deaths from cancers astoundingly higher among minorities, and poorer and lower-educated Americans.

The consequences of perceived social status and the stresses of discrimination and social isolation are often overlooked when considering the health and mortality disparities among those who are frequent targets of our society’s disdain, such as fat people, minorities and lesser educated.

Bookmark and Share