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Nutritionists Find Work Stress Can Affect How Well Lower-income Families Eat

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www.ProHealth.com • February 12, 2003


The effects of low-paying jobs with inflexible hours could be more threatening even than stress and financial insecurity, according to a new study by nutritionists at Cornell University. Such jobs also can influence how well workers and their families eat.

The reason: Many workers with long hours on the job, inflexible schedules and shift work report that they have inadequate time and energy to feed their families as well as they would like.

"The spillover effects of these kinds of demanding jobs not only threaten food intake but also result in feelings of guilt and inadequacy and may interfere with how workers perceive their ability to perform their parental and spousal roles," says Carol Devine, associate professor of nutritional studies at Cornell. Low-status and heavy-workload jobs, she says, "can affect the health and well-being of the entire family."

With colleagues Margaret Connors, Jeffery Sobal and Carole Bisogni, all in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell, Devine analyzed data from in-depth interviews conducted with 51 low- and middle-income adults in an urban area of upstate New York about influences on their food choices.

Their finding are published in a recent issue of Social Science and Medicine (Vol. 53, 2003, pp. 617-630).

The nutritionists found that although both men and women experienced the negative effects of their jobs spilling over to family life, the strain was greatest for women with children. That, they say, is probably because in many families women feel responsible for the care of children and food preparation.

While African-American and white workers reported that men and women shared in meal preparation, Latino workers reported that women carried more of those responsibilities.

"We also found that many of these low- and middle-income working adults felt that sacrificing healthful eating was a temporary but necessary price to pay to allow them to work toward other values and goals, such as meeting the needs of demanding jobs, spending time with family, pursuing education and working toward a better future," says Devine. Many felt that less-than-ideal food choices were an inevitable part of working and that healthful eating and self-care were incompatible with the demands of juggling work and family needs. Participants, Devine says, reported that they served take-out from fast-food restaurants and cereal to children for dinner. They also said they skipped meals, ate on the run and ate too much junk food as ways of coping with demanding jobs.

Many workers might not lack information about healthful dietary choices, Devine points out, but perceive that they cannot put these ideals into practice in the context of their current work and family responsibilities. The authors make several recommendations, such as providing healthy food choices at the work site and helping workers identify acceptable strategies to cope with their conflicting demands.

"Our findings highlight the need to move from viewing workers only at the workplace to seeing them within their larger social and family contexts in which their food choices are embedded," concludes Devine.

The study was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.



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