In developing nations, people living in extreme poverty are unlikely to have extra fat. But in nations like the U.S. and U.K., poor children are much more likely to be obese. Why is this? The answers aren’t clear, but the stark disparities they experience in their lives might just have something to do with it.
The results of a study that tracked children between age five and 11 in 20,000 families in the U.K. are depressingly predictable. The poorest kids were twice as likely to be obese compared to the richest kids, just by age five. By age 11, 8% of poor kids were obese–almost three times more than well-off children. The study, published in the European Journal of Public Health, also showed that kids from poor families exercise less, watch more TV, and have way more irregular bed times compared to rich kids. (Not everything is skewed against the poor. Bike use in 11 year olds is close enough to be the same for rich and poor, at around 65% of kids.)
The big differences are in exercise and eating habits. At age five, three times as many poor kids as rich kids get no daily fruit. A quarter of the poorest five-year-olds drink sugary drinks, compared to just 13% of rich kids, although when we look at 11-year-olds, those numbers almost reverse, with more rich tweens loading up on soft drinks and skipping fruit.
Sports activity is even more starkly divided. Seventy percent of poor five-year-olds get sporting exercise one or zero times per week, against just 22% of rich kids. At the top end, five times more rich kids do sports three or more times a week at age five, and three times as many at age 11.
The cause and effect here are pretty obvious. Rich kids eat better, exercise more and spend less time engaged in sedentary activities. The quality of their food isn’t covered by this study, but you could probably make a pretty good guess at the diets of kids from different income backgrounds.
What’s the answer? Catching them early:
These findings suggest that efforts to curb the increasing prevalence of obesity, particularly amongst disadvantaged children, should start early in life. Intervening in the early years when the family environment has more profound influences on children’s healthy development has the potential to be particularly effective—setting children onto ‘healthy,’ or at least healthier, adiposity trajectories.
The authors also point out that, by age 11, kids spend so much time away from their parents that influencing their diet and exercise is almost impossible. “Catching them early” is hard, though, because there are outside factors in the mix. Rich kids tend to have playgrounds near home. Their parents have more time to devote to playing with them, and more money to pay for sports activities. And lower-income mothers are more likely to smoke during pregnancy.
Given that obesity isn’t just bad for the kid as it grows up, but also an expensive load on the U.K.’s National Health Service, it seems smart to throw some money at this, but right now it’s still not clear which factors to target. The authors of the study suggest that future studies need to focus on “social, environmental, and biological factors” to get a better idea of how to fight the problem.