Is the Economy Making You Fat?

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Lose your job, pick up a snack (Photo: Getty Images)

Can lean times lead to wider waistlines? It appears so. If you are finding it harder to keep off the weight recently, it’s not just you or holiday parties that are to blame. The recession and its aftermath are making you fatter.

A new research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that people tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables when they either lose their jobs, or are at a higher risk of losing their jobs. And for the past few years, that’s been all of us. Worse, not only do we eat fewer veggies, but our consumption of Cheetos and McDonald’s tends to go up as well. Here’s why:

The study by Dhaval Dave of Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., and Inas Rashad Kelly of Queens College in Flushing, N.Y looked at phone surveys done on 350,000 Americans across the country from 1990 to 2007. What they found is that people in areas of the country during that time period with higher unemployment rates tended to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. (More on See the top food trends of 2010)

How much less? Potentially a lot. Dave and Kelly found that a 1% increase in the local unemployment rate lead to as much as a 4% drop in consumption of fruits and vegetables. People eat 8% fewer salads. In the past few years, the national unemployment rate has risen from 4.4% in late 2006 to a recent 9.8%. As a result, we may be eating as much as 22% fewer fruits and vegetables. Trips to the salad bar may have been cut nearly in half.

Why would this be? Laid off workers have more time on their hands. So you would think they might be able to save themselves calories and money by making more of their food from scratch. What’s more, if you lose your health insurance you might be compelled to eat better. But Dave and Kelly says that, unfortunately, doesn’t happen. Losing your job tends to lead to depression and other mental ailments. As a result, people tend to spend less time worrying about their health, and more time compensating with junk food. What’s more, in households where the man was the main wage earner, more women may be spending more time working. If men use their extra time to keep looking for work, that leads to less time for food preparation. (More on See 2010’s pictures of the year)

Of course, the recession is not all bad news for your health. The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economic’s blog is good to point out that recession can also lead to fewer trucks on the road and fewer fatal auto accidents. But the high rate of unemployment that has stuck with us for some time now is sure to have a number of long-lasting negative effects on America. A further deterioration in our already poor eating habits could be one of them.

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