Do people in low-paid jobs choose high calorie food to help them survive?

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

Often it feels like you can’t move without being faced with a fast food restaurant.

And when you have money in your pocket and delicious donuts on your doorstep it can be hard to resist. But recent research has revealed that those of us who earn more are likely to have healthier diets than those who are further down the ladder career wise.

Researchers from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University found that if you feel less educated, poorer or don’t have as good a job as your colleagues you are more likely to tuck into high calorie foods.

In different tests – which included allowing the participants to eat a buffet – the people made to feel lowly ate food with a higher number of calories than those who felt more important.

Adaptive response

Researchers suggest that wealth and social status “act as buffers or insurance” against pressures and people in less senior positions may have an adaptive response to seize key resources for survival that may be available such as food.

However, Doctor David Lee from the UAE’s Camali Clinic believes it may have more to do with mental health and education than fight or flight.

“It is a complex picture,” explains the Lead Consultant Clinical Psychologist. “For example, living in poverty and/or in high levels of debt, is highly correlated with depression and other mental health problems. If you marry this with poor education pertaining to diet, physical health, the importance of exercise and so on then you have a pathway that can lead to all sorts of problems, including obesity, high cholesterol, and hypertension. Many people who are depressed, and have low self-esteem, will binge, and/or eat foods with high calorific value. This can lead to obesity, which then becomes a vicious cycle as this exacerbates the depression through having a detrimental impact on self-esteem and living a sedentary lifestyle.”

Explaining that high sugar and high calorie foods are cheap and convenient, meaning families in lower social classes will eat those more, he says that comfort eating could be a big reason why the people in the study ate more of these foods too.

He adds: “Many people who have low self-esteem, or high levels of shame, comfort-eat or binge on high calorie and high sugar foods. This provides temporary relief from painful feelings, often at the expense of leading the person away from their values in life such as their health. So, overeating or eating too many high calorie foods can lead to obesity as a way of avoiding difficult feelings or thoughts. People can turn to food in a way that they do with other substances which become addictive.”

Alternative perspective

Offering an alternative perspective is Mohamed Zein who was the Distribution Director at the UAE’s now-closed 7DAYS newspaper. In his experience the lower your social status, the healthier your diet.

He explains: “In Nepal I saw the porters (Sherpa) live in the mountains all their life and eat lentil soup and rice every day yet you find 80-year-old man carrying 90kg up mountains and they go faster in cold weather and high altitude. My friends and I would eat bad food because we could afford it until one day I got kidney problems. It turned out to be Gout. It caused me kidney stones and I had to stop eating meat and junk food and started to be healthier and working out.

“Likewise, at work, my distributors eat cheap food since they are on a lower salary, usually rice and dal and they walk 15km everyday. Once they get promoted to supervisor, start getting more salary, driving a car and eating meat every day, their health starts going down.”

Mohamed says it’s the wealthiest in society who struggle most with their diet, adding: “Look at the Middle East and USA, they have the highest diabetes rates in the world because of the bad food habits. Look at the locals here, you see many of them in the supermarket buying unhealthy food and eating junk food. It’s a luxury problem.”

Attitude change

In opposition to Mohamed’s views, Lina Doumani Khalil believes people of higher socio-economic status suffering from obesity due to the abundance of food choices and greed was something that happened 30 years ago but it’s changed now.

The Clinical Dietician at Camali Clinic explains: “Now, obesity is seen less amongst this group simply because they have the means to exercise, go to spas and spend money on trendier, low-calorie food items. On the other hand, people of a lower socio-economic status exercise less, don’t go to spas and when they are offered food for free they tend to over eat, not out of hunger but out of fear that they might not have the chance to have these food items. People with lesser means are in a frame of mind that more is better to reserve and store energy in case of starvation. In addition, less exposure to health education plays a factor.”

At the end of the day we can all educate ourselves as to the benefits of healthy food. Indeed, whether you’re a managing director or an intern, you can still educate yourself about the benefits of a good diet, says Nutritionist Aaron Longden.

“Every person has the ability to make choices. You do not have to be wealthy to consume a balanced diet,” he says.
“Poorer people may have no time to prepare so they grab processed, easily accessible foods. But you can save time and money by cooking in batches and freezing portions of things like stew, curry and cheaper cuts of meat. Also, buy foods that are priced lower as they are near their end date and freeze them and purchase fruits and vegetables which are in season as they are less expensive. If you’re able to, grow your own.

“Change your perception about nutritious food. It can taste great. Have a look at recipe books, it really isn’t that hard.”

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