November 5, 2010
Childhood obesity may have leveled off, but disparities are getting worse for adolescents in California?
A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, looked at obesity rates in adolescents comparing income groups and gender in the years, 2001-2007. What they found was potentially alarming. This study reveals that when comparing adolescents under the poverty line (<100% of poverty) and adolescents whose family income is greater than 300 percent of poverty, adolescents from low-income households show over double the obesity prevalence. There are many studies that have shown increases in obesity across all income groups. However, there is continuing speculation that obesity and income may have an inverse relationship, as incomes go up, obesity rates tend to be lower and vice-versa. There is no definitive answer as to why this may occur, but it is speculated that higher income families have more access to healthy foods, and that low-income families may make eating decisions related what foods provide the most caloric value for the money spent, often consuming calorically rich, but nutrient poor foods. There are, of course, many factors that help shape these trends.
To explain, in 2001 the obesity rate for California adolescents living under 100 percent of poverty was 17 percent and for those in households earning more than 300 percent of poverty, it was only 10 percent. That’s a difference of seven percent. However, by 2007, that disparity between income groups had over doubled to 15 percent; a 23 percent rate for low-income adolescents and an 8 percent rate for higher income adolescents. For a family of four, the poverty rate in 2007, was $21,203, so 300 percent of poverty is $62,609, hardly a king’s ransom for a family of four, but therein lays the disparity.
What does this mean? The authors conclude that while the overall adolescent obesity prevalence is leveling, signifying that the efforts to decrease obesity are having an impact, this study reveals that those efforts may not be reaching lower-income adolescents, especially boys.
Reducing this disparity is a must. It is a social justice issue, a food justice issue and a reminder than this all-encompassing term “childhood obesity” is not affecting all groups equally. The next question becomes, if the childhood obesity epidemic is really leveling, why are we seeing this reduction in adolescent obesity in higher income groups and not the lower-income groups? My speculation is that while most households will have had the obesity crisis brought to their attention, higher income households may have the resources to begin to make change, while lower-income groups may not be able to follow the advice for change battling the structural obstacles associated with poverty: food access, transportation, housing, the built environment and healthcare. Obesity prevention efforts need to serve the needs of low-income adolescents so mitigate this trend.