Is Your Job--Or Eating Habits--Making You Fat?

Last Updated May 31, 2011 10:47 AM EDT

The news that more workers today have sedentary jobs than in the past, and that these jobs are contributing to the nation's obesity problem could be depressing if you're trying to lose weight.

What are you going to do, get a new career to shed the pounds? But in my mind, the fact that you're at a desk job should not be the focus.

The issue is still that most Americans eat and drink too many high-calorie foods. An estimated one third of Americans are considered obese and another third are overweight.

First the details of the study:
Researchers compared obesity data from 1960 to 2006 with employment data from the same periods. They assigned different levels of activity to each job category ranging from sedentary to light to moderate. So farming, mining, construction and manufacturing were considered moderate, whereas wholesale/resale trade jobs, transportation, utilities, education, health care and other service jobs were light, and information, professional and business, and financial were sedentary (check out the chart here).

  • Active jobs plummeted The study found that jobs requiring moderate physical activity, which made up 48 percent of the labor market in 1960, dropped to just 20 percent in 2008. Everyone else has jobs that require only light activity or are sedentary.
  • Workers burn fewer calories. The authors figured that from 1960 to 2008, there was a drop in occupation-related energy expenditure of 140 calories for men and 124 calories for women each day.
  • Thus obesity. The authors concluded that this difference in calories burned accounts for a much of the observed increase in mean U.S. weight over the last five decades.
Americans Consume Too Many Calories
But I question this conclusion, given our nation's propensity for high-calorie, high-fat foods. Contrary to this study, a number of papers have suggested that increased food intake is largely, if not completely, responsible for the obesity epidemic. Many obesity experts believe that the main reason kids who watch lots of TV are more likely to be overweight is because they are exposed to an onslaught of commercials advertising junk food rather than the fact that they're sitting and not burning calories. Plenty of studies have associated soda drinking with obesity. The list relating overconsumption of food to obesity goes on.

Exercising is great, but...
I agree that taking the stairs will burn extra calories and that people should move around as much as possible during work, but how realistic is it to ask people to fidget while at their desk? Given that sedentary jobs are a fact of life today, I think most people would benefit more from looking at what they eat and how they can shed some high-calorie foods from their diet.

What do you think is the reason for Americans' obesity epidemic?

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter.
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.