Kids put on extra pounds during Great Recession

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Increased unemployment during the Great Recession coincided with unhealthy weight gain among California’s 1.7 million public school students, a new study shows.

The finding suggests that family economic trouble has long-term health consequences for children.

For every percentage point increase in unemployment in their counties between 2008 and 2012, school children had a 4 percent increased risk of becoming overweight, scientists report in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The average change in unemployment over the time period was 5.4 percentage points, putting the increased risk that a child would become overweight at 21 percent.

Prior research has shown that even small changes in weight in children and adolescents can increase the risk of developing chronic diseases in the future.

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“This study tells a dramatic story about the negative and lasting health effects of an economic shock like the Great Recession, effects that have not been fully understood,” says study leader Vanessa M. Oddo, a graduate student in human nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Childhood obesity is one of the biggest public health concerns of our time,” Oddo says. “And since it’s not easy to lose weight once it is gained, this period of economic hardship could have consequences that last long into adulthood.”

8 million lost jobs

The US economy was in recession from December 2007 to June 2009, a decline that the National Bureau of Economic Research called the longest since World War II. The economy shed more than 8 million jobs, and recovery was slow. The number of nonfarm US employees didn’t return to pre-recession levels until mid-2014.

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Oddo and her colleagues analyzed California Department of Education height and weight measurements for children in fifth, seventh, and ninth grade at public schools in the state’s 58 counties. They focused on 1.7 million children age 7 through 18 who had at least two measurements, so that they could compare height and weight over time. The researchers checked their results against county unemployment estimates from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2008, just as the recession was beginning, 28 percent of children in the state’s public schools were considered overweight. The percentage of overweight children peaked at 40 percent in 2009, and was still at 37 percent in 2012 as employment slowly recovered.

“Unemployment not only impacts adults,” Oddo says. “Children are impacted, and it’s not something we really talk about.”

Cheaper, junky food?

The researchers say they can only speculate at this point about the exact link between increases in unemployment and increased risk that a child would be overweight. In times of belt-tightening, they say, families may have changed their food-buying habits. School districts may have cut back on sports or after-school activities promoting exercise, they say.

“We think they likely gained weight because with decreased economic resources, families may be trading more expensive healthy food like fresh fruits and vegetables for cheaper, higher calorie alternatives such as highly processed convenience food,” says senior author Jessica C. Jones-Smith, an assistant professor of international health. “The stuff that is convenient and tasty is also high in calories and may be the kind of food people turn to in these economically constrained times.”

The researchers say that their findings highlight the importance of keeping in place social safety nets such as unemployment benefits, food stamps, and school breakfast and lunch programs during economic downturns.

“It is critical that policy makers understand that economic shocks do have implications for the health of children and take steps to mitigate the negative consequences that recessions can have on the young,” Oddo says.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Aging, and the Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Source: Johns Hopkins University