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Neighborhoods Influence Risk For Childhood Obesity

Ruby de Luna

A few years ago a Seattle study came out that used zip codes as a way to predict obesity. Neighborhoods with higher property values had slimmer residents. People living in zip codes with lower property values were more likely to be overweight or obese. A new study expands on that research. Scientists at Seattle Children's Research Institute have more evidence that communities, including physical environment, contribute to obesity. We get details from KUOW's Ruby de Luna.


Obesity used to be seen as an issue of calories consumed and burned. But recent studies show it's much more complicated than input versus output. The environment in which we live and work plays an important role too. The latest study by Seattle Children's Research Institute shows poorer neighborhoods tend to have higher rates of obesity compared to affluent neighborhoods. Dr. Mollie Greves Grow is a pediatrician specializing in childhood obesity. She's also one of the authors of the study. She says it's not the residents' paycheck per se that determines obesity. The income level helps determine what kind of infrastructure or amenities are available to encourage healthy lifestyle choices.

Grow: "In poorer neighborhoods we found that there fewer parks, especially safe parks where people feel like they can be active and feel safe there. There are fewer things too, like safe sidewalks and ways that people can get around by walking and by biking."

And it's not just parks and sidewalks that are often lacking. Access to healthy food choices are limited, too. There are fewer grocery stores in poorer neighborhoods. So residents tend to buy food at convenience stores or fast food restaurants. Dr. Grow says this latest information shows that addressing obesity is complex. It's not as simple as telling families to exercise and eat more nutritious foods.

Grow: "It's not just about personal choice or individual choices, it's about what the entire environment looks like. If you can't drive your child to go someplace to be active and if you can't drive to go get your child healthier food outside of your neighborhood, you're going to be limited to what's immediately around you. And we know that kids growing up in poverty are just going to have that many more limitations in terms of what's available."

Dr. Grow and her colleagues looked at the medical records of 8,600 children enrolled at Group Health. The patients identities were not revealed. Researchers focused on the kids' height and weight that were recorded at the clinic. They also looked at their address, and their income level, based on the type of medical insurance they had. They compared the data with information from recent census tracts. They chose specific characteristics such as mother's education level, income levels and property ownership. That information gave researchers an idea of the residents' socioeconomic status. Dr. Grow says the environment gives a bigger picture, a context of what's putting some kids more at risk for obesity. She says the information isn't just for scientists. She hopes it will inform policy makers to help narrow the disparities in low income neighborhoods. The study is published online in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

I'm Ruby de Luna, KUOW News.

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