Poverty Can Influence the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

Photo: LA Unified School District (creative commons license)

Childhood obesity has become a dangerous epidemic, especially among Latino children. There are many factors that play a role, but one of the worst is poverty: Latino children are three times more likely to live in poverty than White children, and children living in poverty are at higher risk of being obese.

The unfortunate reality is that low-income families face additional barriers to leading healthy lifestyles, resulting in weight issues that manifest themselves very early in life. For example, mothers who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are much more likely to have overweight babies. Researchers believe this is related to the high proportion of sugar-sweetened items consumed through the program.

One barrier that occurs at the family level is food insecurity, which is defined as not having access, due to physical or economic constraints, to enough safe and nutritious foods to lead a healthy life. Nearly one-quarter of Latinos report not having enough food to eat. Families facing food insecurity tend to buy cheaper, less nutritious foods in order to stretch their budgets, and they may overeat at times when they do have access to food. Such up-and-down eating patterns can lead to metabolic changes that promote fat storage.

Food insecurity is just one of many stressors that disproportionately affect low-income families. Others include low-wage work, lack of access to health care, poor housing, and neighborhood violence. Parental stress is an especially powerful risk factor for obesity in the case of Latinos. One recent study found that insufficient sleep is also a risk factor for being overweight, and sleep deprivation is higher among families with lower incomes due to crowded homes and noisy environments that affect sleep quality.


Another barrier, neighborhood-level poverty, can play an even more significant role than family poverty after age two. Low-income neighborhoods have fewer safe and pleasant places to play, and children living in them are less likely to be physically active. Violent crime and other neighborhood conditions such as trashed streets, stray dogs, and speeding cars likewise discourage outdoor active play. Such neighborhoods feature fewer markets and more fast food outlets, and people without access to reliable transportation cannot easily shop for food in other areas.

There are ways to counteract these forces, though. Various policy initiatives, such as tax credits, zoning incentives, and technical assistance, have been shown to improve the food environment in underserved communities by encouraging supermarkets and farmers markets to open there and corner stores to expand their offerings. Revisions to food subsidy programs, such as the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food packages that offer healthier foods, have led to higher consumption of fruits and vegetables by children.

However, barely more than half of Latinos who are eligible for SNAP benefits actually use this resource due to a lack of awareness of the program, immigration concerns, and restrictions (SNAP has a five-year residency requirement, even for legal immigrants). A combination of outreach efforts and program design changes can overcome some of these constraints. NCLR is therefore teaching families about SNAP and other food assistance programs. Our goal is to make higher-quality, nutritious foods more accessible, thereby helping families climb out of poverty.

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