Poor Teens More Likely to Become Overweight
Older American teenagers living in poverty have grown fatter at a higher rate than their peers, according to research that seems to underscore the unequal burden of obesity on the nation's poor.
"Today the percentage of adolescents age 15-17 who are overweight is about 50 percent higher in poor as compared to nonpoor families, a difference that has emerged recently," said Johns Hopkins' sociologist Richard Miech, the study's lead author.
Obesity rates among all teens climbed substantially during the study, which covered 30 years. But the great divide concerning income occurred most notably among the 15- to 17-year-old age group.
That led one outside expert to challenge the findings. Rand Corp. economist Roland Sturm said it seems implausible that younger teens would differ so much from older teens.
Even if they do, he said, "It seems a rather secondary issue compared to the general trend in weight gain across all youth."
Miech argued that older teens generally have more autonomy to buy what they want and to determine their own activity levels, which he said might explain the results.
Sturm and other experts said the study's underlying message about obesity and poverty is sound.
The study appeared in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association. It is based on data from 10,800 youngsters ages 12 to 17 who participated in four nationally representative health surveys conducted from 1971 to 2004.
The researchers determined poverty levels using family income and the U.S. Census Bureau's poverty threshold.
In the early 1970s, about 4 percent of poor youngsters ages 15 to 17 were severely overweight, compared with about 5 percent of teens who were not poor.
By the early 2000s, those rates jumped to 23 percent of the poor and 14 percent of other youths, the researchers said.
The results contrast with recent research suggesting that while the poor are most likely to be overweight, obesity rates among U.S. adults have climbed fastest in recent decades among those with annual salaries greater than $60,000.
Miech said both could be right because eating and exercise habits are different for adults and adolescents.
During the past decade, the percentage of calories from sweetened drinks has grown by more than 20 percent among teens in the 15-17 age group -- an increase concentrated among the poor, he said.
"We also find that physical inactivity increases with age in adolescence, as well as the probability of skipping breakfast," said Miech. "Both these factors are more likely to be found among the poor and are also associated with overweight."