Childhood Obesity Rates Remain High Among Low-Income FamiliesMay 18, 2012
Over the past few decades, there has been a steady rise in the rates of childhood obesity across the nation. In the United States, approximately one in three children is currently overweight or obese. Obesity is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Even more alarming, Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona characterized the threat as follows: “Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
However, there is an indication that childhood obesity rates are beginning to level off, or slightly decline based on data recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A new study found that overall rates in Massachusetts for children under age six substantially declined from 10.5 percent in 2004 to 8.9 percent in 2008 – a 14.7 percent drop over the four-year period! Researchers also found that this trend was greater (obesity rates fell 17 percent from 10.1 to 8.3 percent) among children insured by private health plans. The smaller decrease of 6.9 percent from 12.3 to 11.5 percent in obesity prevalence in Medicaid-insured children reveals the socioeconomic disparity in childhood obesity. While the majority of people who are obese are not minorities or poor, it is also worth noting that obesity rates within these groups are in fact relatively higher for one or both sexes when compared with the white or nonpoor population.
Children insured by Medicaid, the government-funded health plan provided for families with incomes up to 133% of the federal poverty level ($29,700 for a family of four in 2011), are exposed to more factors which increase their risk for obesity. While there is no definitive answer explaining the inverse relationship between income and obesity (as income decreases, obesity rates tend to increase), it has been speculated that low-income families most likely live in neighborhoods lacking safe outdoor areas for exercise and play, and have limited access to supermarkets selling fresh produce and healthy foods. Additionally, they are less aware of the harm that excessive consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and calorically-dense foods pose on health.
The fact that childhood obesity prevention efforts are not having as much of an
impact on low-income groups is definitely a major concern. Adopting a “health
in all policies” approach, which involves a coordinated effort from over 40
federal agencies whose policies influence health, would help to address the various issues surrounding childhood obesity at multiple levels in society. Prevention efforts should begin targeting the needs of the low-income population with an understanding of the unique challenges and obstacles they face associated with poverty.