By Dan Fastenberg

The high rate of obesity and unemployment are, in many ways, the two biggest problems afflicting America in 2012. It almost goes without saying, both have grown way too fast. A new study by the Robert Wood Foundation predicts that half of the country will be obese by 2030, up from one in three now. The unemployment rate -- while inching down since 2010 -- remains stubbornly high at 8.3%.

Now, a new raft of studies examines the relationship between these two ailments. Is America's rising obesity also contributing to unemployment? Or vice versa? And what happens when workers are both fat and unemployed?

Overweight And Low-Paying Jobs: Cause Or Correlation?

It's well-documented that low income people tend to have higher rates of obesity. The conventional wisdom is that fatness is a side effect of low income. The thinking is that when people don't have a good job and are poor, they are more likely to shop at cheap supermarkets and eat poorly, and therefore become unhealthy. But a new study by Katherine Mason of the University of California, Berkeley, pokes holes in that theory -- at least for women. Mason argues that "fatness is often a contributor" to women's economic problems, such as unemployment and wage disparities.

How so? For Mason, a sociology professor, it comes down to outright discrimination against the overweight. She reached that conclusion after culling data from the 1997-2008 "National Longitudinal Survey of Youth." Among her findings: Unlike for men, "obese women's economic disadvantages persist over time."

Obese Workers And Hiring Managers Agree: Discrimination Exists

Other recent studies of human resources professionals also confirm discrimination is prevalent. According to the peer-reviewed BMC Public Health, HR professionals consistently "underestimated the occupational prestige of obese individuals and overestimated it for normal-weight individuals." The study was compiled by showing pictures of obese individuals to 127 human resource professionals, who were asked to allocate a profession for each person, from high prestige jobs like doctors, to other positions like cashier.

Obese people "were more often disqualified from being hired and less often nominated for a supervisory position, while non-ethnic normal-weight individuals were favored."

Moreover, in another study of 445 obese workers, 1 in 4 said that they have been denied benefits like health insurance because of their weight. In fact, allegations of weight discrimination grew 66% from 2000-2010 in employment settings, health-care facilities and educational institutions, according to Obesity.

As has been reported on AOL Jobs, appearance discrimination isn't illegal; the obese aren't automatically protected from discrimination. Only the state of Michigan and six U.S. cities have laws protecting the obese from discrimination. However, new amendments to 1990's Americans With Disabilities Act may make it possible for obese workers to be protected from discrimination for their weight condition.

Does Obesity Create Job Opportunities?

The two issues of obesity and employment do, however, have a positive intersection -- a new market has been created. According to a report from Reuters, "fitness is shaping up as one of the hottest careers of this tepid economic recovery." The sector is expected to grow by 24 percent by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And the demand for fitness instructors is growing, despite the recession: health club membership is up by more than 10 percent over the past three years, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sports Club Association.

"The obesity epidemic has produced a lot of noise and talk and chatter," says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, which has certified more than 50,000 fitness professionals. "Helping individuals be more active is important and fitness professionals can be at the center of that."

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