Obesity due to inequality

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A recent study shows that national rates of obesity for adolescents between 12 and 19 didn’t rise during the 2000s. However, “among teens from poorer, less well-educated families, obesity has continued to rise”.

Adolescents with well-educated parents, however, saw obesity rates decline from 14 per cent to seven per cent while those of the same age with parents with no more than high-school education had their rate of obesity rise from 20 per cent to 25 per cent.

There are innumerable possible causes for this discrepancy, as children from poorer backgrounds face incredible obstacles to maintaining good health.

For example, many poor parents can’t afford to enroll their children in physical activities or sports leagues. Poorer families are more likely to live in “food deserts” where healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to access and junk food with high salt, fat and sugar content becomes a quick fix.

A child’s family context is also a very important determinate of their physical health. Children who lack supervision or a structured schedule might defer to less active lifestyle, and many poor families have parents working several jobs.

These challenges are occurring in the context of a widespread turn away from childhood play in modern North American society. Children and adolescents are more likely to be found in a basement playing computer games than outside running around.

More specific to the American context, however, is an increase in economic inequality and reduced social mobility. Those who are born at the bottom of the income scale are likely to stay there.

One reason for these phenomena is physical health. If children grow up unhealthy, they are less likely to have the wherewithal to study hard in school and progress into a fruitful career. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that’s getting worse over time.

The changing rates of obesity in different social classes are concerning but should be seen for what they truly are: the result of cultural inequalities and the limited resources society provides for lower class families.

Journal Editorial Board

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