Zip Code Affects Childhood Obesity Rates

zip code obesityA new study, comparing specific neighborhoods in Seattle and San Diego found that where a child lives–including factors such as the neighborhood’s walkability, proximity to higher quality parks, and availability of healthy food options–has a substantial effect on childhood obesity rates.  Specifically, the study found that children living in neighborhoods with favorable environmental attributes were almost 60 percent less likely to be obese. Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past 3 decades, with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) citing that approximately 17 percent of US children ages 2-18 are now obese.  This research, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and conducted by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, is one of the first to look at how neighborhood nutrition and physical activity environments influence obesity rates in both children and their parents. The researchers used geographic information system (GIS) data to examine the availability of supermarket and concentration of fast food restaurants in specific neighborhoods. They also assessed the neighborhoods walkability and the number of child-friendly parks in the areas.

The researchers found that in favorable neighborhoods with positive physical activity and nutrition environments, only eight percent of children were obese—about half of the national average. However, in the neighborhoods that rated poorly, they found that almost 16 percent of the children were obese—on par with the national average.  The findings support recommendations from groups like the CDC and Institute of Medicine, which suggest that changes in environments are needed in order to make them more supportive of physical activity and nutrition.

Another recent study published in the same journal found that in order to meet the goal set by the federal government for reducing obesity rates by 2020, US children would need to reduce their daily calorie intake by an average of 64 calories. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set the goal in a 2010 report, aiming to reduce the national childhood obesity rate to 14.6 percent.  The daily difference between how many calories children consume and how many they expend through normal growth, body function and physical activity is known as the energy gap. The 64-calorie difference between energy intake and expenditure is an average for the population. Without this reduction through either increased activity or reduced consumption, the study authors suggest that nearly 21 percent of US youth will be obese in 2020. Of course, as this is an average, some children would need to reduce calories further, while others would not need to reduce calories as much. For instance, the study found that white youths would need, on average, a 46-calorie reduction in their energy gap, while, Mexican-American youth, with higher obesity rates, would need a 91-calorie reduction, on average.  For black youths, a reduction of an average of 138 calories is advised.  The study authors outlined several policy strategies that could help to close the daily energy gap for American youths, such as replacing soda in school with water and supporting after-school activity programs.

An earlier statement by the American Heart Association also outlined methods in which parents can work with their children to reduce obesity. You can read the strategies here.

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