Any news about declining (or perhaps even stagnating) levels of childhood obesity is welcome. As a public-health issue, the problem continues to be a focal point of many youth-targeted health initiatives, like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program.
But a study published last month in the journal PNAS suggests that the overall trend of stagnating obesity masks a stark contrast in the prevalence of obesity between adolescents from high- and low-socioeconomic backgrounds.
Using data from the 1988-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, and the 2003-2011 National Survey of Children’s Health, researchers suggest that class-specific trends in obesity began to appear during the 2003-2004 time period.
Food intake and physical activity levels are major contributors to obesity, and researchers attribute the growing disparity in obesity between socioeconomic classes to just that.
Over a 12-year period, average daily calorie intake decreased among all children, but calorie intake fell even more among children of high socioeconomic status, the research states. Calorie intake of adolescents with college-educated parents fell from about 2,500 calories in 1988-1991 to 2,150 calories in 2009-2010.
The average daily calorie intake for adolescents with high school-educated parents only fell from about 2,270 calories in 1989-1991 to about 2,100 calories in 2009-2010.
Physical activity levels also pose a problem. In both surveys the researchers analyzed, adolescents with college-educated parents reported more opportunities for physical activity than those with high school-educated parents.
In 2009-2010, almost 95 percent of adolescents with college-educated parents reported some physical activity within the last 30 days, compared with only 82 percent of those with high school-educated parents.
According to the study, in 2003 the class gap in physical activity was three to seven percentage points. In 2009-2011, the difference was 11 to 13 percentage points.
So are the health initiatives working?
The leveling off of overall childhood obesity suggests that programs targeting youth-health are, indeed, having some effect.
But the disparities in obesity between different socioeconomic groups suggests, according to researchers, that the messages and various health initiatives haven’t been received equally across the population.
To address the growing health disparities within differing socioeconomic groups, the researchers suggest a further look into how the health behaviors of different subgroups of children lead to obesity.
This includes looking into the differences in cost and access to healthier food options within neighborhoods; and accessibility to community parks, recreational centers, and walkable infrastructure, all of which can promote increased physical activity.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.