Childhood obesity rates best predicted by income, study finds

Child on a scale.

University of Michigan Health System research shows that poverty, not race or ethnicity, is the best predicting factor in whether or not a community has a high rate of childhood obesity.

In order to understand why this research is important, we need to discuss the cultural background that plays a role in framing the problem. For quite some time, scientists have noted and tracked higher-than-normal rates of childhood obesity in black and hispanic communities. This research addresses those concerns, controlling for race and ethnicity. As you can the see in the graph below showcasing data from 2007 and 2008, large racial disparities in childhood obesity rates are quite evident.

Racial breakdown of childhood obesity rates - CDC 2007-2008
Racial breakdown of childhood obesity rates – CDC 2007-2008

“The findings reveal differences in the inequalities in the physical and social environment in which children are raised,” says senior author and cardiologist Kim A. Eagle, M.D.,“It illustrates that race and ethnicity in communities may not have a significant connection to obesity status once the community’s income is considered.” She went on to say that “although there were higher rates of overweight/obese status among African American and Hispanic students, the relationship disappeared when controlling for family income.”

A better understanding of the root cause of a public health problem like childhood obesity is required in order to create better public health policy. Knowing where and how to direct resources allows officials to address problems in a more effective and efficient manner. Childhood obesity is a growing and concerning long-term issue. There’s a 70 percent chance that an overweight child will grow into an overweight adult. Resulting medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol are a strain on medical and social infrastructure.

The research team concluded that “fewer resources like recreational programs and parks and access to full service grocery stores appear to have a greater impact on the nation’s childhood obesity rate than race.”

“The battle to curb childhood obesity is critically tied to understanding its causes and focusing on the modifiable factors that can lead to positive health changes for each and every child,” Eagle says. This robust study represents but another data point in building a more comprehensive picture of a serious public health problem.

The study, “The relationship between childhood obesity, low socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity: Lessons from Massachusetts,” is published in the December issue of the journal, Childhood Obesity.

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