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Work stress, weight gain and weight loss: evidence for bidirectional effects of job strain on body mass index in the Whitehall II study

Abstract

Objective:

Previous research has focused on overall associations between work stress and body mass index (BMI) ignoring the possibility that stress may cause some people to eat less and lose weight and others to eat more. Using longitudinal data, we studied whether work stress induced weight loss in lean individuals and weight gain in overweight individuals.

Design:

Prospective cohort study.

Subjects:

A total of 7965 British civil servants (5547 men and 2418 women) aged 35–55 at study entry (The Whitehall II study).

Measurements:

Work stress, indicated by the job strain model and measured as job control, job demands and job strain, was assessed at baseline and BMI at baseline and at 5-year follow-up.

Results:

In men, the effect of job strain on weight gain and weight loss was dependent on baseline BMI (P0.03). In the leanest quintile (BMI<22 kg/m2) at baseline, high job strain and low job control were associated with weight loss by follow-up, whereas among those in the highest BMI quintile (>27 kg/m2), these stress indicators were associated with subsequent weight gain. No corresponding interaction was seen among women.

Conclusion:

Inconsistent findings reported by previous studies of stress and BMI have generally been interpreted to indicate the absence of an association. In light of our results, the possibility of differential effects of work stress should also be taken into account.

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Acknowledgements

The work for this paper was supported by the Health and Safety Executive. The Whitehall II study has been supported by grants from the Medical Research Council; British Heart Foundation; Health and Safety Executive; Department of Health; National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (HL36310), US, NIH: National Institute on Aging (AG13196), US, NIH; Agency for Health Care Policy Research (HS06516); and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation Research Networks on Successful Midlife Development and Socio-economic Status and Health. MK, also working at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and JV were supported by the Academy of Finland (projects 104891 and 105195), the Finnish Environment Fund and the Yrjö Jahnsson Foundation, JEF is supported by the MRC (Grant number G8802774), MJS by a grant from the British Heart Foundation, and MGM by an MRC Research Professorship. We thank all participating Civil Service departments and their welfare, personnel, and establishment officers; the Occupational Health and Safety Agency; the Council of Civil Service Unions; all participating civil servants in the Whitehall II study; all members of the Whitehall II study team.

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Kivimäki, M., Head, J., Ferrie, J. et al. Work stress, weight gain and weight loss: evidence for bidirectional effects of job strain on body mass index in the Whitehall II study. Int J Obes 30, 982–987 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0803229

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0803229

Keywords

  • psychosocial factors
  • work stress
  • body mass index
  • weight gain
  • weight loss

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