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Rich kids getting thinner, but obesity among poor still rising

by Marcia Kaye Jan 3 / 14

The good news is that rising rates of obesity among US adolescents have begun to level off. The bad news is that mostly well-off kids are seeing the benefit, while worse-off adolescents are still getting heavier.

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Kids in the bottom third of income and education still have growing obesity rates.
Photo: iStockphoto

Overall obesity rates in 12- to 17-year-olds have plateaued at 17 percent. But a study by CIFAR Advisor Robert D. Putnam and two colleagues at Harvard found large disparities, with children in families in the upper third of education and income becoming more active, less heavy, and better nourished, while children in the bottom third are worse off than ever.

Among the obstacles faced by kids at the bottom: fast food and packaged snacks are often cheaper and more easily available than healthier alternatives; low-income neighbourhoods have fewer parks, sidewalks, recreational facilities and safe places to play; and schools have begun charging fees for extracurricular sports.

“Obesity is a clear example of the growing gap between rich and poor kids in America,” Putnam says. “This gap represents the biggest historical challenge we face as a country. We’re becoming a two-class society.”

He warns that similar data are emerging from the UK, and wonders whether Canada may not be far behind.

The implications are serious and far-reaching. An overweight 16-year-old girl has a 92 percent chance of becoming an obese adult, and a 16-year-old boy, 80 percent. Obesity carries a much higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis and many types of cancer, including breast and colon. The resulting disabilities, treatments and premature deaths are directly linked to lost productivity, soaring health care costs and fractured families.

It’s an issue for which all of us – parents, schools, health care professionals, community leaders and governments – need to take responsibility, says Putnam, whose book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is due out next year.

The study was co-authored by Carl B. Frederick and Kaisa Snellman. It was published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.