Rates of Obesity in Kids Are Down… But Poverty, Pollution and Lack of Sleep Make Things Worse

The statistics tell us that one in six U.S. children are obese, and one in three are overweight. And when you look at an obesity map alongside a poverty map, you get the sense that the two are related. A new study in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics finds facts that support this theory.

According to Health magazine:

Between 1980 and 2001, there was a rapid increase in the prevalence of childhood obesity, according to background information in the study. However, most recent national studies have shown that childhood obesity may be leveling off, or in some cases, even on the decline.


Are public awareness and school campaigns against sugary snacks and junk food working? Maybe. But if so, it's for kids whose families are financially stable.

As Health.com article posted on CNN reports, surveys of low-income children do not show the same declines in obesity rates.

"Unfortunately there seems to be some socioeconomic disparity in this decline," says lead researcher Xiaozhong Wen, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, in Boston.

This news comes at the same time researchers are looking at how sleep and genetics play into weight. We've known for awhile that sleep deprivation increases levels of hunger hormones. But by taking a look at twins — in a study by the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center in Seattle — scientists found that people who sleep less increase their genetic risk of an elevated BMI.

But let's just say you're a kid who is well-off. You don't live in a food desert — you live in a city. And you get the right amount of sleep. And you're still obese.


Yet another study by the Columbia University Center for Children's Environmental Health suggests that urban air pollution might affect obesity. Dr. Andrew G. Rundle tells The Huffington Post:

"Obesity is a complex disease with multiple risk factors... For many people who don't have the resources to buy healthy food or don't have the time to exercise, prenatal exposure to air pollution may tip the scales, making them even more susceptible to obesity."

Obesity rates are higher among African American and Hispanic children, Rundle notes. "So while NYC has many advantages in terms of walkability and parks," he explains, "It also has many residents traditionally thought to be at higher risk."


There are so many different factors at work here. (And we haven't even discussed psychological factors and bullying.) Additionally, obesity statistics are constructed using BMI data that may not be very accurate. Still, it's amazing how there are comments on these stories like, "OMG eat less and you won't be a fatty" and "How can you be obese and living in poverty? That doesn't compute…" These simplistic attitudes ignore the truth: the more we study, the more we realize how complicated weight is.

Speaking to Health.com, Shakira Suglia, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health puts it this way:

"I think more and more, there's an awareness that you can't just tell someone, 'Eat healthy.'"


As childhood obesity improves, will kids in poverty be left behind? [Health.com via CNN]
Could the Childhood Obesity ‘Epidemic' Be Ebbing? [Health.com]
Sleep lessens the effect genes have on weight [USA Today]
Urban Air Pollutant Linked to Obesity [HuffPo]
Many First-Graders Shun Overweight, Obese Kids [Health.com]

Image via Vladislav Gajic/Shutterstock.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter