Which came first…the stressed out chicken, or the indebted egg? And, who’s paying the price?

Recently I was a little frustrated by a colleague who discounted the connection between personal health and financial health. In reality, the two are inextricably connected and we need to recognize the direct impact that indebtedness and economic insecurity have on health issues.

I had been tossing around the idea of writing a post on the topic for a few weeks, but wasn’t convinced until last Monday evening. After a long day I decided to surf through our 687 television channels to find something to watch. Not surprisingly, 686 channels later I gave up and settled on a rebroadcast of the Dr. Oz show. That day he had joined forces with Suze Orman to demonstrate the correlation between debt and weight. He cited that people deeply in debt were twice as likely to struggle with obesity and the health issues that follow. It seemed the time was right for us to address the topic on the blog as well.

I won’t go into the details of the show or Suze’s advice (we’ll save Suze for another post). Let’s just put a few research findings on the table to start…

  • In a 2007 study by the American Psychological Association, 73% of respondents cited money as a significant source of stress in their life.
  • Financial worries have been cited as the leading cause of chronic stress, causing 25% of Americans to miss approximately 16 days a year of work.
  • Stress can lead to a number of unhealthy habits including smoking, consuming excessive amounts of caffeine, drinking, over-spending, and obesity.

The challenge becomes where to start…money troubles and health troubles seem to be circular – a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conundrum. We’ll delve into just a few examples.


For instance, an average smoker might spend $1,200-$1,500 per year on cigarettes. For a low- or moderate-income family, this expense can drive them further into debt and may wipe out their opportunity to save. This financial tension leads to ever increasing stress and makes the process of trying to quit smoking even more difficult. And, of course, the habit increases the likelihood of suffering from cancer, heart disease, stroke, pulmonary disease and a host of other costly and devastating illnesses.


Studies have shown that in many people, the act of making a purchase releases serotonin in the brain giving the feeling of euphoria or a “high”. People under stress, including stress resulting from debt or economic uncertainty, crave that rush and can often spend themselves further into trouble. Financial stress is at its height for individuals who have lost their job, have significant debt, or do not have health insurance. Stress can be linked to a number of conditions including ulcers, migraines, back pain, anxiety, depression, and heart attacks.


The connection between economic insecurity and weight/nutrition is much more complex and involves not only the connection between financial stress and weight, but also issues of access and psychology.

For years our government has subsidized farmers producing crops that become the ingredients for low cost, high calorie foods with little nutrition. For families in economic crisis, these are the foods that fit in their budget. Additionally, for individuals struggling with limited transportation options, these are the foods that are readily available at local convenience stores when a supermarket is out of reach.

Further, workers struggling to achieve self-sufficiency are often working non-traditional hours or multiple jobs. This leads to an increased reliance on fast food and convenience foods which are again, cheap, provide little nutrition and are highly caloric.

In addition to access issues, the psychological factors behind our food habits link economic insecurity with over-eating and obesity. For many of us, our childhood woes were often soothed with sweets. Our images of holidays and celebrations often revolve around a dinner table. No doubt, food (and usually unhealthy food) is tied to our vision of happiness. As a result, many people use food as a way to “fill their emotional tank” when they are stressed – and as the statistics show, people are stressed about money. Not surprisingly then, studies suggest a deep correlation between obesity and financial distress.

The impacts of being over-weight or obese are far reaching. A host of health issues can be tied to weight including:

  • Heart disease and stroke.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes.
  • Cancer.
  • Breathing problems, such as sleep apnea and asthma and many more.

Beyond the health issues, people who struggle with obesity face many other challenges. Women classified as obese earn, on average, 6% less in wages. (http://bit.ly/e610lf) Expenses are also often higher for insurance, healthcare costs, etc.

There are so many other issues we haven’t even touched on here that link economic crises to personal health. Availability of insurance, preventive care, quality health care providers, healthy homes, fitness resources, are just a few of the other factors that connect our financial and physical health. To be sure, as we address the opportunities to move families from economic insecurity to self-sufficiency, we will be making a positive impact on both their financial and physical health.

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