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Walking the Gantlet Keeps Us Plump

UPDATED: A policy brief finds increased obesity among the poor is likely tied to structural obstacles in better eating and exercising.
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Although there’s a wealth of information circulating about living healthy, it’s still much easier and often cheaper to eat poorly in the United States than it is to eat properly. The gantlet that low-income kids must run to eat right is even longer, according to a research brief put out by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research today.

In examining the barriers affecting adolescents in California specifically, the researchers led by Theresa A. Hastert reported that among the 480,000 deemed obese in the Golden State, a higher percentage of those with low incomes were obese compared with the affluent. That’s 21 percent of the poor (income of $19,971 for a family of four) versus 8 percent of the better off ($59,913 for a family of four).

Two of the factors behind this disparity, according to the brief, are that poor teens consume marginally more soda and fast food than do their better-off peers, while twice as many fast-food outlets are nestled within a half-mile of their homes compared with those of the more affluent.

Marketing to low-income consumers and couch potatoes of all stripes has been criticized by nutrition activists like Marion Nestle, who contrasted the dollars spent to push fizzy drinks and greasy sliders with the almost nonexistent spending on promoting better eating habits. “The word is out,” she told our Amy Ramos earlier this year, “but the environment of food choice makes it almost impossible for people to follow that advice, because all of the pressure is to eat more — and to eat more of the wrong kinds of food.” (It’s tough: Even school lunches aren’t always up to snuff.)

The UCLA researchers identified some other behavior that contributes to obesity: infrequent family meals, less physical activity among low-income teens, more TV watching and less participation in sports and physically active classes and lessons.

They offer four proposals for addressing these barriers to a healthy weight, ranging from the nanny-state options — zone away fast-food outlets and offer incentives for the right kind of food outlets — to the personal — let children know they need to turn off the tube and sit down for real meals, sans soda, with the adults in their lives.

Although policy prescriptions necessarily target policymakers, there was some heartening personal advice (and some fine marketing ideas for the makers of the Wii) in the brief:

Given that lack of time is the most commonly cited barrier to getting more physical activity, and that more than half of California teens spend at least two hours per day watching television or playing video games, developing strategies that encourage teens to engage in physical activity instead of watching television, and making physical activity more appealing could improve overall levels of physical activity. Physically active video games offer one alternative to sedentary television watching.

The researchers also noted that some barriers to physical activity are present for the urban poor but may not afflict others. As we noted in a study about obesity among African Americans, a lack of transportation and safe activities and a fear of being in tough neighborhoods after school lets out genuinely locks people indoors.

“Our neighborhoods are literally making us fat,” one of the research brief’s authors, Susan H. Babey, was quoted as saying in an accompanying release. “We need better strategies and more thoughtful urban planning if we are going to make our towns and cities livable, not just places where we live.”

UPDATE: The UCLA researchers must be applauding a report from Sports4Kids that found Americans feel schools are giving recess short shrift. "Eight in 10 men don’t think kids are getting enough physical play on a regular basis, compared to slightly less than three in four women who feel the same," the report, released the same day as the UCLA policy brief, states. The survey follows up on a 2007 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-sponsored report, "Recess Rules," "that named recess as the single most effective -- yet the most underfunded -- strategy for increasing physical activity among children."