Poverty Increases Teens' Risk of Overweight

Sweetened beverages, inactivity and skipping breakfast cited as major factors

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By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, May 23, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Poor, older teenagers are more likely to be overweight than their well-off counterparts.

That's the conclusion of a new study that found the prevalence of overweight was more than 50 percent higher in older teens living below the poverty line, compared to those living above the poverty line. However, the study found no association between poverty and overweight in younger teens -- those between the ages of 12 and 14.

The study also looked for important factors that might contribute to teen overweight, and concluded that physical inactivity, increasing consumption of sweetened beverages and skipping breakfast were important forces, especially in poorer communities.

"Those who live in poverty are about 50 percent more likely to be overweight compared to those not living in poverty," said the study's lead author, Richard Miech, an associate professor in the department of mental health at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Not only that, but one of our key findings is that this difference has emerged recently. In the '70s and '80s, there was no difference at all," said Miech.

The study findings appear in the May 24/31 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The number of overweight American teens has risen dramatically over the past 30 years. And, the number of adolescents considered overweight has more than doubled in that time period, according to the study.

With the rise in the prevalence of overweight, health-care professionals are concerned that diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea will also dramatically increase and begin to affect younger and younger people.

To get a better idea of how many teens are overweight and what populations are most at risk, the researchers pooled data from four different nationally representative surveys -- the U.S National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) from 1971-1974, 1976-1980, 1988-1994 and 1999-2004.

The four surveys included more than 10,000 children between the ages of 12 and 17. Information was gathered on height, weight, physical activity, dietary habits and socioeconomic status.

The researchers used U.S Census Bureau data to assess poverty level status. As an example, in 2004, a family of four with an income of less than $19,157 was considered to be living in poverty.

The researchers didn't find any significant difference in the prevalence of overweight in young teens (12-14) based on income levels. However, the difference was clear in older teens (15-17). The rate of overweight in older adolescents from poor families was 23 percent, compared to only 14 percent for older teens from more affluent areas.

Some factors that may influence that difference, according to the researchers, are sedentary lifestyles, skipping breakfast and drinking sweetened drinks, such as energy drinks, soda and fruit juices.

"In the past 10 years, the percent of calories that adolescents get from sweetened beverages has increased by 20 percent, and particularly among the poor," Miech said.

He said the recent voluntary withdrawal of soft drinks from schools is a step in the right direction, but added that schools and parents need to do more to encourage physical activity.

Cathy Nonas, a registered dietician and director of the diabetes and obesity programs at North General Hospital in New York City, agreed that physical activity is essential.

"Kids often end up with less gym time, to have more class time, so they can test better. We're trying so hard to get math and English scores up that we're destroying their health," said Nonas. "We're creating an environment for our children that is very unhealthy."

Plus, she added, in urban areas, the problem is compounded because there often isn't room for fields or gyms.

She recommends walking as much as possible, and added that the whole family should be walking. Additionally, she suggests that when teens are listening to music, they shouldn't just listen passively, but get up and dance.

Both Nonas and Miech said eating breakfast is important, and that numerous studies have shown that skipping breakfast can contribute to excess weight. Nonas said if you don't have time to sit down to a bowl of cereal and a piece of fruit, grab a high-fiber, high-protein nutrition bar that's low in sugar.

More information

This article from the Nemours Foundation, written for teens, explains why exercise is good for you.

SOURCES: Richard Miech, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor, department of mental health, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Cathy Nonas, M.D., R.D., director, diabetes and obesity programs, North General Hospital, New York City, and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, and author, Outwit Your Weight; May 24/31, 2006, Journal of the American Medical Association

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