- Recent data reveals a growing disparity in the teen obesity crisis in the US, with decreasing obesity in teenagers parented by college graduates, but dangerously increasing rates among teens raised by high-school-educated parents.
- Socioeconomic factors dictate health and wellness, with less privileged families struggling with limited resources for implementing a healthy lifestyle, including access to wholesome foods and environment for physical activity.
- Despite the emphasis on education about obesity, the cruciality of exercise, and the adoption of a healthy diet, the majority of US teens still fall short of the recommended exercise and dietary guidelines, with low-income youth disproportionately affected.
- Factors such as unsafe outdoor spaces, declining school sports participation and lack of community exercise centers contribute to the increasing disparity in teen obesity rates.
- Experts advocate for basic lifestyle changes (like family meals, reduced TV time, and increased sleep) and practical living tips (like choosing stairs over elevators) as affordable and realistic obesity prevention methods for less privileged families.
Recent data has indicated an unsettling trend in the teen obesity crisis in the United States. Although the overall rate of teen obesity has ceased to increase in recent years, sadly a growing disparity is seen amongst the less privileged youth.
Reports point to a noticeable decrease in obesity levels amongst teenagers whose parents have completed college education- from a 7 to 11 percent decline recorded in some surveys conducted by the government.
On the contrary, the situation remains grim for teenagers from families where the parent’s highest education is high school. For this group, the obesity rate continues to rise, registering between 26 to 29 percent in 2010.
Implications of Socioeconomic Disparity
Carl Frederick, the principal investigator from Harvard University in Boston, confirms the widening socioeconomic disparity vis-a-vis teenage obesity.
He stated, “While we are making progress with the affluent families, unfortunately, we are leaving other children behind.”
Although obesity has long been prevalent amongst low-income less-educated Americans, the new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that this gap is expanding, which is alarming.
Challenges in Addressing Obesity
Marlo Mittler, a nutritional expert from Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York expresses concern. She points out that although educating families and kids about obesity is prioritized, lower-income parents lack resources to implement a healthier lifestyle. Social-economic factors heavily contribute towards buying cheap processed foods, and limited access to fresh fruits or vegetables, especially for families living in the inner cities or rural areas. Healthy food access has proven to be a challenge alongside lack of physical activity.
Importance of Exercise and Healthy Diet
A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that only a quarter of teens in the United States are engaging in the suggested amount of exercise, which is a minimum of one hour of moderate-to-vigorous activity daily.
Unfortunately, the study highlights that low-income teens have even lesser access to physical activity. In 2011, about 91% of teens from college-educated families reported exercising for at least 20 continuous minutes in the past week, an increase from 87% in 2003. Conversely, the same quantity of exercise was reported by only 80% of teenagers from less-educated families, with no difference in the past eight years.
However, calorie intake saw a slight change for all teenagers on average. Teens from college-educated families reported a significant reduction.
Root Causes and Solution
Frederick pointed out factors like unsafe spaces outdoors, lack of community centers for exercise, and a decrease in school sports participation as some of the underlying causes of the rising disparity in teen obesity. In his study, increase in participation was observed only amongst affluent teenagers.
However, tackling obesity should start with its prevention. Jess Haines, who researches childhood obesity at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, suggests that introducing simple changes, like meals together, reduction in TV time, and increasing sleep could slow down weight-gain in low-income preschoolers.
She shares, “We intentionally picked routines that incurred no costs to the families.”
Frederick agrees that providing such practical guidance can prove beneficial. But, he adds, “Simply saying, ‘You need to exercise’, isn’t enough. What families truly need are tips on how to incorporate it into their daily lives — such as taking walks together as a family, or choosing stairs over elevators.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided more information on childhood obesity.