RICE (US) — Children living in neighborhoods where poverty levels are high and education levels are low are more likely to be obese than children in more affluent communities.
The findings hold true regardless of family composition or other individual factors.
The study, published in Social Science & Medicine, also shows that living in neighborhoods with a higher proportion of foreign-born residents is associated with reduced child obesity risk.
Researchers based their conclusions on a comparison of 17,530 5-year-old children living in approximately 4,700 neighborhoods nationwide. Children in poorer neighborhoods have 28 percent higher odds of developing obesity, and those in middle-class neighborhoods have 17 percent higher odds, compared to children living in affluent neighborhoods.
The statistics take into account such factors as household socioeconomic status, maternal education. and how much television the child watches. Children living in neighborhoods with a high proportion of foreign-born residents had approximately 20 percent lower odds of obesity.
Childhood obesity is a significant public health issue, with 31.7 percent of children ages 2-19 overweight or obese, and there is much to be learned about how communities influence the epidemic, says Justin Denney, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University and associate director of the Urban Health Program at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
“We know there are characteristics specific to families and individual children that are associated with obesity,” he says. “Those relationships are pretty well understood at this point, but less well understood are community influences, such as the social and demographic characteristics of the places people live.
“Neighborhood poverty is associated with childhood obesity above and beyond the poverty status of the child’s family and other individual and family characteristics. This tells us there is something about the community that is also influencing childhood obesity.”
While it’s clear that neighborhood characteristics matter for obesity risks, policies have not been as concerned with this information or efforts to alleviate the epidemic that’s “grabbing hold of kids in this country,” says Rachel Tolbert Kimbro, associate professor of sociology and director of the Kinder Institute.
“There are literally thousands of funded individual-level interventions in childhood obesity being tested right now,” Kimbro says. “We believe they are well-meaning but possibly misdirected.”
Kimbro hopes the study will encourage exploration of neighborhood programs to address risk factors for childhood obesity.
“There have to be individual-level interventions, but this paper shows that there is something going on at the community level that’s clearly very important to address,” she says.
Source: Rice University