At cash-strapped schools, obesity rules

PENN STATE (US) — Going to a financially impoverished school may have more of a negative impact on a child’s weight than poverty in their own home, a new study finds.

The study, published in Social Science and Medicine, finds that poor schools even influence how parental education protects children from becoming overweight.

“It was once thought that family income was the main factor when we talk about the research on adolescent weight,” says Molly Martin, assistant professor of sociology and demography at Penn State. “That’s not true. The environments the children live in play a key role in weight problems among adolescents.”


The level of a school’s financial resources significantly predicted adolescent weight problems, but the average education level of the parents for students in those schools did not.

Students with well-educated parents are less likely to be overweight. However, the effect of having a better-educated parent is minimized if the student attends a poor school, says Michelle Frisco, associate professor of sociology and demography.

A parent with a graduate degree who has a child in a poor school is more likely to raise an overweight adolescent than a parent with an eighth grade education who has an adolescent enrolled in a rich school, the study shows.

“The environment can actually limit our ability to make the choices that we all think we make freely,” Frisco says.

Many experts believe that well-educated parents can use more tools to help their children maintain a healthy weight, despite environmental pressures, Martin says. For instance, they can recognize health issues associated with being overweight and are more comfortable communicating with doctors. Well-educated parents can also teach their children about nutrition and food choices.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that included information about 16,133 students in 132 schools.

Poor schools may influence overweight adolescents in several ways beyond providing the unhealthy food choices at cafeterias that are typically blamed for adolescents being overweight, says Martin.

Poor schools may not have the resources to pay for athletic and fitness programs. Better-funded schools may offer food choices that are unhealthy, but they may also have the means to provide additional healthy food options, such as vegetarian dishes, while schools with limited resources may rely more on vending machine income.

Stress also may play a role in the weight gain of students at poor schools. “Schools with limited financial resources tend to be more stressful environments,” Martin says. “Stress promotes weight gains and usually the worst kinds of weight gains.”

Stress tends to promote excess weight gain in the midsection, which is associated with such health problems as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development supported this research.

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