Why Your Neighborhood Could Be Causing You to Gain Weight

July 15th 2016

Lucy Tiven

Today's Americans are fatter than ever, according to the CDC's newest health survey.

While numerous factors contribute to the plumpening of the country's adult population — the cost of healthy food, increased availability of junk food and fast food, and cultural shifts in meal size, just to name a few — scientists have identified another factor that makes certain people more prone to obesity and diabetes: where they live.

Living in low income neighborhoods has been linked to higher stress and cortisol levels.

As ATTN: has previously reported, people who live in low income neighborhoods often lack access to convenient public transportation, and are exposed to pollutants and environmental racism — which may contribute to stress. They may also have financial hardships that add an additional layer of anxiety: trouble paying bills, putting healthy food on the table, and difficulties meeting the needs of children.

Sad woman holds head in hands

These stressors hike up the body's production of cortisol, a hormone that boosts energy in an emergency situation. “That generalized response releases energy substrates to the muscles, so you can fight or run away,” Rebecca Hasson, director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan, told Nautilus. “Usually that’s in response to a physical stressor, like a bear chasing you.”

But the body can be tricked into interpreting "non-emergency" situations as physical threats, pumping out more cortisol.

And higher cortisol levels contribute to a host of health problems, including weight gain.

On Nautilus, journalist Andrew Curry explained:

"When it’s released in response to stress, cortisol signals the body to shift energy production into overdrive. It’s a signal for organs and various tissues in the body to accelerate production of glucose, the sugar that fuels our muscles, by breaking down carbohydrates and protein. As part of its role in freeing up energy, chronic exposure to cortisol also increases cravings for high-sugar, high-fat foods, and increases the body’s resistance to insulin, the hormone that signals the body’s cells to absorb sugar."

Curry continues:

"In much the same way, being late for school, unable to make your car payment, worried about where your next meal will come from, or feeling unjustly scrutinized because of your skin color aren’t immediate physical threats. But the brain still responds by signaling the adrenal glands to release cortisol."

A 2000 study on 59 healthy pre-menopausal women also identified a link between cortisol exposure and stress eating.

"High cortisol reactors consumed more calories on the stress day compared to low reactors, but ate similar amounts on the control day," the study reports. "In terms of taste preferences, high reactors ate significantly more sweet food across days."

Chronic stress leads to constantly high cortisol levels.

"Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the 'on' position — cortisol may stay elevated," Harvard Mental Health Letter reports.

This helps explain why low income populations are more prone to obesity in the United States.

One study of distressed neighborhoods — those where residents are poor, undereducated, and unemployed — found that their residents, whether white, black, or Hispanic, were more likely to be overweight, in addition to feeling depressed and hopeless, according to Vox.

But race is important, too. Some experts think that minority population get hit harder with the health consequences of poverty. Curry writes: Because they’re more likely to be poor, blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be exposed to the chronic stressors of poverty—and to cortisol, with all of its negative effects.

Stressed Out

High rates of obesity in Black and Hispanic populations are sometimes attributed to genetics, but experts think that poverty and racial discrimination play a significant role.

"If the differences in diabetes risk were exclusively genetic, researchers would expect the rates in Africa to be much higher," Curry wrote. "But that’s not the case: Black Africans have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and depression than their distant cousins in the U.S."

This supports the findings of a 2009 study, which concluded that stress derived from socioeconomic factors made Black smokers face higher rates of tobacco-related morbidity and mortality than white smokers.

Conscious, everyday experiences of racial discrimination can also be a source of stress.

“African-Americans do perceive discrimination, and it gets under their skin,” Rockefeller University neuroscientist Bruce McEwen told Nautilus. “Native-born African-Americans react differently than African-born or Caribbean-born blacks. They haven’t been exposed to these effects as much, and maybe they don’t perceive discrimination in the same way.”

Moving zip codes can literally make you healthier.

A 1994 to 2004 decade-long housing experiment called "Moving to Opportunity" found that people who used housing vouchers to move out of poor neighborhoods had significantly lower rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity than those who stayed in impoverished neighborhoods, even though the bulk of the participants who moved didn't change their lifestyles or dietary habits.

As ATTN: has previously reported, more educated populations are also less likely to be obese, while people who face long-term unemployment are at much higher risks of obesity than people who are not unemployed.

Yet, housing in the United States is only getting more expensive.

An early June report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition came to the unsettling conclusion that "in no state can a minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom rental unit at the average Fair Market Rent working a standard 40-hour work week, without paying more than 30% of their income."

The severity of the affordable housing crisis leaves those living in poverty trapped in neighborhoods where their safety and health is compromised and they have little hope of achieving the economic mobility that would allow them to move elsewhere. Hasson's research suggests that the ability to lose weight is itself a privilege, and that the eliminating socioeconomic and racial inequalities on a systemic level is fundamentally intertwined with efforts to lower rates of obesity and diabetes in the United states.

“People are told that if they just exercise more, eat better, if they’d just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they’d feel better,” Elizabeth Goodman, a professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, told Nautilus. “But it’s about the context, not just about the person.”