For several years, there’s been a campaign to get kids to eat better and exercise more. The goal is to stop the relentless weight gain among American children and reduce obesity rates. Being obese can lead to a number of diseases and health problems.
Recent years have brought encouraging news. There’s been improvement in many corners of the United States, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to Mississippi.
The diet and exercise campaign has been successful. Several years into it, child obesity rates have appeared to stabilize and might even start to reverse.
But a study published this week suggests that obesity has continued to rise in adolescents from poorer, less well-educated familie
s. The progress has been made mostly by teens from better-educated, more well-off families.
Getting Enough Exercise?
Nationally, rates of obesity among adolescents ages 12 to 19 did not rise over several years. From 2003-2004 to 2009-2010 ra
tes were unchanged. But during those years, obesity rates among adolescents whose parents have just high-school educations or less went up. They rose from about 20 percent to 25 percent. At the same time, the obesity rates for teens whose parents finished college, or got advanced degrees, fell. The
y dropped from 14 percent to about 7 percent.
Youth obesity had been trending downward. But that hid “a significant and growing” gap between youth from richer and poorer backgrounds, says the latest study.
Differences between rich and poor in obesity rates ar
e not new. And, they are only one of many health gaps that make poor patients si
cker and more likely to die early than richer ones.
But the new report suggests that the public health message on obesity has not spread “evenly across the population.” If true, this difference could hold back efforts to reduce it. And in the years ahead it could le
ad to a rise in diseases related to obesity.
Researchers from Harvard University surveyed youth about their eating and exercise patterns. They found that physical activity may be the major reason for the difference in obesity between rich and poor.
They surveyed adolescents with parents who had college degrees. In 2003, 87 percent of them said that they had exercised or played a sport for at least 20 minutes continuously sometime in the last seven days. By
2011, 90 percent said they had done so.
They also surveyed adolescent children with parents wh
o did not go beyond high school. In contrast, 80 percent said in 2003 that they had exercised or played a sport for at least 20 minutes in the past week. By 2011, still only 80 percent said they had done so.
They were then asked whether they had done at least 10 minutes of continuous physical activity in the last month. Of adolescents with college-educated parents, 95 percent said yes. But among teens with parents with high school educations or less, only 82 percent of teens had done that much.
Taking In Less Calories
Kids from every type of background have gotten the message that they should reduce their intake of calories from eating and drinking. And kids from poorer families took in fewer calories to begin with
From 1998 to 2010, the teenage children of parents with college degrees reduced their average calorie intake. They lowered it from 2,487 calories per day to 2,150. In the same period, poorer adolescents went from averaging 2,271 calories per day down to 2,105.
Many factors influence our weight. Genetics, how fast we each burn calories, our culture and our environment all play a role. But, the biggest reason is simple: If we take in more in calories than we burn energy through physical activity, we gain weight.
But in the poorer group of adolescents, almost 1 in 5 is completely inactive. For them, obesity is just more likely. Since both poor and well-off kids take in about the same amount of calories, poor kids are likelier to be obese.
Childhood obesity leads to future obesity among adults. Public health experts want to prevent this. But, they’ll have to figure out why poorer kids don’t get as much exercise, the authors of the latest study say. Lack of recreation centers, playgrounds, and streets and side
walks are a problem. All of those encourage walking, biking and playing and are important in keeping active, they wrote.
But, they added, “this is not the whole story.” The same researchers also found that among children with parents who are well-off
, participation in high school sports has increased. But among kids from poorer, less well-educated families, such participation has gone down.