Low-Paid, Insecure Jobs Linked to High Body Mass Index

While precarious work has long been associated with poor health outcomes, a new study finds that unfavorable employment conditions increase body mass index (BMI).

In their study, published in the journal Obesity, researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago defined precarious work as an accumulation of "unfavorable facets of employment," such as low wages, insecure employment contracts, irregular hours, and lack of union representation.

The researchers examined 20 years of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth adult cohort. The average age of the participants was 44.

After identifying 13 self-reported survey indicators of precarious employment, the researchers used computational and statistical models to compare these indicators with BMI, considered as an indicator of obesity.

The researchers found the highest precarious work indicators to be among Latino and Black women with lower education. Additionally, a one-point increase in precarious employment was associated with a 2.18-point increase in BMI.

"Given that even small changes in weight affect chronic disease risk, policies to improve employment quality warrant consideration," the study authors concluded.

Previous research has also linked precarious work to worsened mental and physiological health, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorder, which is a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

According to a report from the International Labour Office, anxiety and personal and economic insecurity caused by zero-hours contracts result in such high levels of stress that are detrimental to health. Persistent precarious employment, however, is not associated with all-cause mortality.

What is BMI?

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a person's weight in pounds divided by the square of height in feet. A high BMI can indicate high body fatness, according to the CDC, but it does not diagnose being overweight or having obesity.

A recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder looked deeper into the link between BMI and mortality risk. The researchers noted that BMI doesn't account for differences in body composition, meaning a muscular man weighing over 200 pounds can be placed in the "obese" category.

When the researchers considered body composition and how long a person has been obese, they found that obesity increases the risk of mortality much more than previously believed — anywhere from 22% to 91%.

Over the past 20 years, the U.S. obesity prevalence increased from 30.5% to 41.9%. The condition affecting both children and adults can cause heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.


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